By Tom Gogola, The Lens staff writer |

City officials Tuesday could take the first moves to expand the city’s number of taxicabs by as many as 120 Tuesday as they discuss a series of ordinances meant to improve the frequently criticized fleet.

The expansion would come as handicapped-accessible vehicles are required as part of reforms being pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The City Council’s Transportation Committee meets at 10 a.m. in the council chambers to discuss the changes, which are being sponsored by Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer.

Taxis would have to take credit cards and comply with other reform measures, if they pass the City Council.

City law used to provide a cap of 1,608 Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience. Each cab on the street needs to have such a certificate on file.

Critics have argued that 1,608 is already too many cabs for a city of New Orleans’ size.

“You would want to cut the number,” said Peter F. Burns, a Loyola professor who has studied New Orleans’ taxicab industry.

Burns helped produce a 2009 white paper that argued for a fleet of about 600 taxicabs. Other cities, he said, issue taxi licenses based on their population, and most municipalities average about one cab for every 1,000 residents – even those that share New Orleans’ status as a tourism mecca.

“New Orleans is way off,” he said, especially when its post-Katrina population loss is factored in.

The 2010 Census put the New Orleans population at 343,829. There are currently about 1,550 Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience issued by the city, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said. That’s one taxicab for every 222 residents.

The reform package under consideration aims to bring the city in line with best practices nationwide in the taxicab industry, said Trevor Theunissen, Palmer’s chief of staff. The reforms would require cleaner cars; onboard credit-card machines; vehicles of relatively late model; and a host of other consumer-friendly reforms, including the addition of disabled-ready vehicles.

Cabs in New Orleans have been known to charge extra fees for disabled riders, though that is against federal law.

However, the proposed law doesn’t require that drivers transport disabled passengers even if they’re using a certificate issued as part of this reform intended to benefit handicapped passengers.

The system will be “self-policing” insofar as the handicapped vehicles are concerned, Theunissen said. Up to 120 new certificates could eventually be issued, but dispatchers will not be required to prioritize those vehicles for handicapped calls.

A limited number of certificates makes each one more valuable, and drivers and companies buy and sell them for more than $65,000. Competition likely would be keen for any new certificates put up for grabs.

“The concerns we are hearing from industry people,” Theunissen said, “is that these represent free CPNCs for people who get these vehicles.”

Even with the additional handicap-accessible vehicles, the council itself won’t be concerned about eclipsing the city’s longstanding cap of 1,608 certificates. That’s because lawmakers did not reinsert a line in the law that set the cap when the City Council amended the taxicab law after Hurricane Katrina.

“There was no intention to get rid of it,” said Theunissen, who stressed that the cap was removed before Palmer was elected, “but they never put it back in. Technically, it’s not in the law right now.”

The city acted to revoke about 500 lapsed taxi certificates after Hurricane Katrina because their owners did not return, or did not reapply in a timely manner.

The current reform package doesn’t reinstate the cap.

“These proposals came to us via the [Landrieu] administration,” Thenuissen said. The longstanding 1,608 cap “was not included in any of the reforms.”

He said that no new certificates have been issued in New Orleans since the cap was lifted.

The reform law under consideration would also suspend transfers between certificate owners and willing buyers, Berni said.    Last year, the city suspended the transfer of certificates, Berni said. The city will allow transfers to resume if the reforms are enacted, he said. Correction, March, 27: The Lens incorrectly reported that the new ordinances would suspend transfers; in fact, it would allow now-suspended transfers to resume.

“Once the reforms are in place,” he added, the city will be able to “develop a transfer process . . . and we will be able to add new [certificates].”

Even if New Orleans winds up with more than 1,608 cabs roaming its streets?

“Sure,” Berni said.

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...