Plan for public funding of taxi cabs spurs Chattanooga City Hall fight

Plan for public funding of taxi cabs spurs Chattanooga City Hall fight

March 18th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Business Around the Region

A Carta bus makes a stop on Market Street.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Document: Yusuf Hakeem Email

Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem's invitation to meet with transportation officials and Millennium Taxi.

Document: Blythe Bailey Email

City Transportation Director Blythe Bailey's response to Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem's invitation to meet with transportation officials and Millennium Taxi.

City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem has threatened not to fund the city's Transportation Department because he said transportation officials were opposed to funneling money into a private taxi company.

But transportation officials question whether Hakeem's proposal to consider partnering with Millennium Taxi Cab for a city-wide voucher program violates the city's purchasing policy.

"I believe that naming a specific vendor on the front end of a policy discussion involving a significant financial expenditure may be a violation of purchasing policies and therefore I respectfully decline this meeting," Transportation Director Blythe Bailey wrote to Hakeem in an email.

Last week, Hakeem sent an email inviting Blythe to meet with Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, (CARTA), the City Council and Millennium Taxi cab owner Tim Duckett to talk about a proposal to partner with Millennium, calling the proposal a "win-win" for all involved. No other taxi services in Chattanooga were invited to the meeting.

Hakeem said he believes the inner city has been hurt by the city's public transportation system and Monday's meeting was intended to start the discussion of how to fix the problem. Hakeem back-peddled from the statements in his email saying the discussion was not specific to one vendor.

Hakeem said he also questions whether he should support the Transportation Department in the future if officials aren't open to supporting him.

"We need to look at the way our dollars are spent," he said. "If we're not going to address the needs and concerns of the people of the inner city, then we don't need to address any transportation needs at all."

Blythe said he isn't opposed to the idea of a voucher program, but the city can't limit the idea to one company.

Today the City Council is expected to vote on a major initiative from the Transportation Department creating a city-wide policy outlining the future of Chattanooga streets to include bicycle lanes, sidewalks and other features. The ordinance is called complete streets and has been adopted in cities across the country, including Seattle.

The vote will be followed by an update Wednesday from CARTA and Mayor Andy Berke on a city-wide transportation study that includes the complete streets ordinance.

Hakeem said he is still deciding whether he will vote against the ordinance.

When Hakeem invited officials to the meeting Monday he highlighted the purpose was to discuss whether CARTA and the city should establish a public voucher partnership system with Millennium Taxi as well as an electric taxicab pilot program. That proposal would include the city purchasing 40 taxicabs for Millennium Taxi.

The proposal also included discussion about CARTA and the city providing support services including insurance and maintenance to Millennium's taxicabs fleet.

Hakeem said the proposal came from Duckett, who has researched where other cities introduced similar programs that offer taxi services at a reduced price for low-income residents.

Duckett claims CARTA's free downtown shuttle hurts taxi services, but at the Monday meeting with CARTA, he didn't present any evidence of how the taxi company is directly effected. Instead he presented figures that CARTA officials said were wrong.

CARTA officials said they would be interested in pursuing a voucher program if the City Council initiated the idea. But CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano pointed out the transportation authority would have to submit bids for such services and couldn't agree to a specific taxi service on the front end.

After the meeting, Hakeem said he doesn't need the city's blessing to move forward with a proposal that he said will be researched and further discussed before a final proposal is presented to the council.

"The council has authority over funding," he said. "We don't need the approval of anyone else in government."

City Councilmen Jerry Mitchell, Ken Smith and Moses Freeman also attended Monday's meeting.

Smith said "speaking for myself and this council, there are no jobs that are predetermined to go to any particular vendor that has not been properly vetted or bid on."

Mitchell said his understanding of the meeting was to learn about the taxi industry's troubles. But he said he wouldn't support the City Council trying to fix the problem without support from the transportation department or the administration.

"A huge problem in our community is transportation," Mitchell said. "It's going to take everybody on the same page. The mayor's office can't be in one direction, CARTA in another and City Council in another."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.