A passenger stepping into a taxicab in Miami-Dade County will soon be able to track the route electronically, whiz down expressways without stopping for tolls and, at the end of the trip, pay with a credit card.
OK, cutting-edge it is not. But the technological gadgetry, approved Wednesday, will mark the first extensive reforms in years to Miami-Dade County’s highly regulated taxicab industry.
County commissioners, fed up with complaints from tourism and business leaders about Miami-Dade’s lackluster taxicab service, signed off on a slew of measures intended to improve passengers’ experience.
“Changes are coming to this county,” Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said.
For the first time, the county will require all cabs, within two years, to accept credit cards and, within six months, to install SunPass transponders. Passengers will get a discount if they pay cash.
For the privilege of picking up passengers at the airport and seaport, drivers will have to apply for a special decal and wear collared shirts, long pants and closed-toed shoes.
The changes don’t go as far as some industry critics had hoped for when the reform effort began months ago. Taxicab drivers worry they will be forced to dig further into their pockets. And even proponents say passengers will have to wait too long to see much difference — and by then, some of the technology will already be antiquated.
But Wednesday’s decisions, at a special commission meeting devoted solely to taxi and car-service legislation, signaled a new willingness by the board to wrestle with a system it created 15 years ago that has now come under scrutiny.
“Our customers are thanking you,” said Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Commissioners voted 10-1 to require all taxicabs to install credit-card readers, SunPass transponders, GPS devices and digital security cameras. New taxi vehicles will have to be no more than three years old and be replaced by the time they are six years old.
They voted 9-2 for the so-called “ambassador cab” program at Miami International Airport and PortMiami. Drivers without the decal will be allowed to drop off passengers at the ports, but not pick them up.
Both proposals were sponsored by Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.
“This is huge,” said Aviation Director Emilio González, who pushed for the program along with Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “We want to make sure that the process is transparent, is professional, is passenger-friendly and gives Miami the best first look.”
The principal opponent was Commissioner Jean Monestime, who said he was not convinced that the improvements would not become a cost burden for drivers. Most cab drivers do not own their vehicles or the permits known as taxi medallions.
“There are some hardworking drivers that are honest people out there,” Monestime said.
“I’ll have to put more money out of my pocket to buy a new car, to buy everything that is going to be required,” said driver Miguel Lantigua of the New Vision Drivers Association. “I will be poorer than I was yesterday.”
Monestime and Commissioner Barbara Jordan also said they fear the ambassador program sets too-stringent penalties for drivers who fail to comply with the rules. Several violations could result in removal from the program.
While not covering drivers’ costs, the commission also approved a pair of related proposals that will allow the board to increase taxi-meter rates every year, if necessary, and another to study a potential technology surcharge for passengers.
In addition, the county will give cab owners six more months to replace older vehicles that had been scheduled to go out of service Dec. 31, 2013. The model year 2005 cars will now have to be replaced by June 30.
The longtime heads of cab companies quibbled with some of the provisions in the new laws (for example, one said giving hybrid vehicles priority access at the airport and seaport would not work because most models are smaller than Ford Crown Victorias and fit less luggage).
But they hailed the changes in general, and the credit-card requirement in particular, which some owners said they have been pushing for, to no avail, for years.
“I feel proud that our industry is going to look better and is going to be able to serve the public better,” Diego Feliciano of the South Florida Taxicab Association said after the meeting.
“I feel bad for the drivers,” he added, agreeing with the ones who complained about the new costs they will have to incur.
Several drivers called for scrapping the county’s taxi-medallion system altogether, in which a limited number of people — mostly investors and cab companies — own the valuable permits and lease them to drivers. Only about one-third of medallions belong to drivers.
For the first time, a few commissioners sounded open to reviewing the system.
“I would love to see 2,000 licenses out there for all the drivers,” Commissioner Xavier Suarez said. “And I know we’re going to get sued. And that what government is for — to get sued.”
Board members also acknowledged the county’s own lack of enforcement of existing regulations has been partly to blame of taxicabs’ poor shape.
“Maybe we have all failed to deliver excellence out there,” Sosa said, referring to the county’s slogan, “Delivering Excellence Every Day.”
The most contentious legislation was not on Wednesday’s agenda. Last month, Commissioner Audrey Edmonson withdrew her plan to dramatically deregulate the car-service industry to allow technology companies such as Uber, a digital car-booking service, to operate.
An offshoot of her proposal, however, met with approval Wednesday. Commissioners agreed to reduce to 15 minutes the existing requirement that car-service rides be arranged an hour in advance.
Commissioner Sally Heyman, who sponsored the legislation, had wanted to do away with the pre-arrangement altogether — a key obstacle for companies like Uber, which offer on-demand car service. But at an earlier committee meeting, the proposal was amended.
The taxicab industry opposes the direct competition that would result from making the hailing of a luxury sedan or limousine on demand.