VIRGINIA BEACH — Soon Norfolk taxi cabs could cross the border to the Beach to give homeless and displaced students rides until the school year ends, and local cab companies who say they can do the work are livid.
City council agreed in an 8-3 vote to defer the decision to allow foreign cabs to work in the city — for the second time this year — at its formal session Tuesday night.
Current city code prohibits taxi cabs licensed in other localities to operate at the Beach, except for Newport News, Portsmouth and Suffolk. Cab drivers from these cities can operate because Beach cab drivers can pick up passengers in those cities.
Since Hurricane Matthew hit in October, there’s been an increase in student transportation needs.
Today, there are about 300 homeless and displaced Beach students who ride in taxis to and from school.
The cab rides for students are funded by VBCPS’ $70,000 Homeless Education Program under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Services Act, according to Virginia Beach City Public Schools public relations coordinator Heather Allen.
Hampton Roads Transportation Inc., a company awarded a five-year contract with VBCPS in 2014 to give those rides, addressed this by requesting the city to vote on an ordinance earlier this year.
If passed, the ordinance would allow HRTI’s Norfolk cabs to help its Beach fleet perform the duty until June 30.
“It’s a temporary change due to extraordinary circumstances due to Hurricane Matthew.” Judith O. Swystum, Hampton Roads Transportation Inc. president, said.
HRTI taxi cabs took 10,369 trips between September and December 2015. During the same time frame in 2016, that number jumped to 17,803, according a letter from VBCPS
Despite the increase, HRTI’s Black and White Cabs of Virginia Beach fleet shrunk from 55 to 45 cabs in 2017, according to Master Police Officer Jim Price in a letter from Virginia Beach police to Lynne Johnston, All City Cab Company Inc. owner.
“They were getting left at school and made late to school,” Johnston said.
“They are the most at-risk children because they’ve had all kinds of things happen in their lives, and this was supposed to be the one thing that stayed stable. Instead, it’s drawn attention to them coming in late and being there after everyone’s gone.”
Johnston said Officer Price ticketed a Norfolk Black and White cab in Virginia Beach, leading to this ordinance request.
“It’s illegal, but they’ve been doing it for years,” Johnston said. “Lyft and Uber are already taking a large part of our revenue, and HRTI wants an ordinance written to cater to its businesses finances … It’s as discriminatory as discriminatory can be.”
Orange Cab Company owner Mohiyidine Cheikh and Johnston both said they have unsuccessfully attempted to access the contract between HRTI and VBCPS.
“In my belief, if a company was running a contract with the government based on certain criteria, they should be fulfilling that contract based on the city they are in,” Cheikh said.
“If that company willingly, intentionally and strategically lowers the number of cabs in a certain time of the year so they aren’t able to meet the requirement, it does not mean that they need cabs. They have another plan to bring somebody from another city, especially since they didn’t reach out to us.”
Swystum said HRTI removed the 10 cabs from its Beach fleet this year to get cabs through the inspection months.
“I have to be able to have cabs available, to be able to service these children, to go out,” Swystum said. “The reciprocity issue will not allot me to use other taxi cabs to be able to go to Suffolk or Portsmouth or Norfolk or Chesapeake. They’re going all over the place.”
Allen said VBCPS considers increasing bus frequency in situations like these, but that some students who need these rides are living outside their school zones.
“Because students are displaced from their school of origin and that attendance zone, there may not be a bus in their neighborhood going to that out of zone school,” Allen said. “It is easier to accommodate at the high school level because there are already buses picking up students in various neighborhoods for the division’s academy programs.”
After city council deferred the vote Feb. 21, HRTI advertised the opportunity to work as subcontractors to Virginia Beach cab companies on Feb. 24 with a March 3 deadline. The request listed 12 qualifications ranging from criminal background checks and defensive driving course certification to a $1 million minimum insurance requirement.
Johnston said most Virginia Beach taxi businesses are women and minority-owned small businesses, and that the $1 million minimum insurance requirements to participate puts them at a disadvantage.
The insurance requirement for Virginia cabs is $125,000 for bodily injury and property damage, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
As a competing business, she also said it’s a conflict of interest to give the information HRTI requested.
“What typically happens with cab companies is they fight each other — they’re all in competition,” Johnston said. “Well guess what, there are 32 of us who are not fighting each other right now. HRTI is a monopoly and they are trying to crush us.”
HRTI did not respond to Southside Daily when asked to comment.
City council will vote again on this ordinance at its formal session April 18, and councilman John Moss requested a copy of the contract to review before the vote.
“I think there is a benefit of the doubt that this is not for the convenience of the taxpayers, or for the performance of the contract, but the path of least resistance for profitability,” councilman Moss said. “Not for accountability.”