ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City Administration Committee tackled a wide variety of topics last week, packing a three-hour meeting with discussion on local taxi companies asking for fare deregulation (and doing a little deregulating on their own), city speed limits and the future of the Hangar Theatre.
There is a rule in place in the City of Ithaca that taxi rides must not cost more than $8.00 if they begin and end within the city limits. As was exposed in the City Administration meeting, taxi companies locally have been openly flaunting that rule for a significant time, disregarding the regulations and charging more for rides—Alderperson Phoebe Brown, who is not a City Administration Committee voting member but was joining in the discussion, said she was being charged $14 for a ride from the Flats to downtown recently.
City Clerk Julie Holcomb brought the issue to the committee, saying she had been alerted to the problem by someone close to her who complained about taxi rates locally. Holcomb then initiated a conversation with Ithaca Dispatch and Collegetown Cab, the two largest local taxi services, who explained their rate hikes by blaming gas prices, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on lower taxi rides, and difficulty hiring back drivers who were laid off.
“So they’re just ignoring the rules?” asked Committee member George McGonigal asked. Holcomb said that she believed the companies were trying to be competitive and survive, though she acknowledged that she didn’t know how long the heightened rates had been going on. Officials from both companies had written memos, included in the agenda, asking for a suspension of the rate clause in the city that limits the amount they can charge.
“Business survival during this wild and crazy inflationary time requires taxi operators to have the freedom to react quickly to market forces affecting their bottom line,” wrote John Kadar, of Ithaca Dispatch. “[Collegetown Cab’s Paul Kriegstein] and I believe that by temporarily suspending clause 32.70 Council will act in the best interest of the taxi companies and Ithaca’s residents, many of whom rely on taxicabs to access essential services.”
City Attorney Ari Lavine jumped in to ask if the city is an effective regulator of taxi services, particularly in light of the fact that the hikes had been going on without city officials noticing. Holcomb answered that the financial regulation portion is difficult, and that she wasn’t sure of the benefits or effectiveness for the city to be in that position, but that she believes the other part of the regulations (which have standards for driver suitability, for instance) are good.
Brown began the discussion by stating that the regulations should not be rolled back, and committee member Jorge DeFendini later agreed.
“The ride-shares [Uber, Lyft] might be driving market competition, but I think you just need to gesture to the United States’ history, especially in economically deprived communities, to see that market solutions don’t work,” DeFendini said. “We definitely need to maintain these regulations. […] I’m glad Alderperson Brown is here, because there clearly seems to be a disconnect between what the law says and what people’s lived realities are.”
Fellow member Jeffrey Barken remarked that if the city doesn’t have the mechanisms in place to enforce the regulations, it might be better to just roll them back and allow the companies to compete more freely. There are no regulations in place for Uber and Lyft because, Holcomb said, the city is under 100,000 people.
“If we get into a discussion about the economic burdens that are on taxi cab companies, while at the same time seeing that there has been inconsistent adherence to the regulations, it makes me less inclined to support any idea of deregulation,” said Chair Robert Gesualdo Cantelmo. “We don’t want to pass that burden on to people who require that mode of transportation to get around.”
Brown added that even if the COVID-19 pandemic did impact taxi companies, it also impacted everyone else, including economically, meaning that riders were now shouldering the burden for the taxi companies, something that would be even more true if the regulations were taken away—even though the taxi companies simply aren’t listening to them.
By the end of the discussion, it was clear the committee wanted more information before proceeding with too much concrete action. There may be a discussion about a potential fuel cost surcharge allowed for taxi companies at Common Council next week.
City Speed Limits
The first topic, chronologically, that generated much discussion was actually merely an expression of support for a bill currently working its way through the state level. The committee unanimously approved a resolution asking State Assemblymember Anna Kelles and State Senator Tom O’Mara to support the progress of the bill, which was introduced by State Assemblymember Amy Paulin and State Senator Rachel May.
Current state law disallows cities and villages in upstate New York from putting speed limits under 30 miles on an area-wide basis and disallows speed limits under 25 on any roadway at all.
Committee member George McGonigal said he has favored dropping the speed limit to 25 miles per hour in the city for years, but asked City Transportation Engineer Eric Hathaway what the reasoning was for further reducing it to 20—which would be the case if a pending amendment is accepted to the bill and the bill is approved.
First, Hathaway said that 20 wouldn’t necessarily be the default for the city, just the lowest threshold allowed by the state if the bill is passed. He said even if the state steps in and wants it to be a bit higher, like 25 miles per hour, it would still be progress towards a safer environment for bikers, drivers and pedestrians alike.
“Twenty has been implemented in a couple cities around the country and internationally as well, and there’s pretty good studies that show it has had a pretty significant benefit from a livability standpoint and safety standpoint,” Hathaway said. “What the 20 miles per hour does is, I’ve done studies on specific roadways in the city, and there are some roadways where the recommended speed is 20 miles per hour, based on a variety of factors. So it allows me the flexibility to use appropriate methods.”
Hathaway mentioned Cascadilla Park Road as one street he “wouldn’t dare somebody to even drive 20 mph on it.”
Committee member Jorge DeFendini said that among all the recent conversations about public safety, this specific aspect of public safety would probably be forgotten. Drawing on his upbringing in Queens, New York City, DeFendini said the action would have a positive impact even in subtle ways.
“There’s constantly news of tragedies of people on bikes, and pedestrians hit by cars,” he said. “If we’re being serious about a) public safety and b) adequate climate change support, we have to make sure that we are addressing these minute details that factor into everyday life.”
Fellow member Jeffrey Barken asked about the impact on commerce, drawing a comparison to Richford, New York, where he said the speed limits seem significantly lower than other areas and that he thought it was so people would drive slower past storefronts and potentially be more likely to stop. Hathaway said he wasn’t sure of something like that being proven through a study, but that the phenomenon was generally accepted as true.
The Hangar Theatre’s longstanding struggles with flooding were also discussed at the meeting, with the theatre requesting funding up to $30,000 for a study regarding its flooding issues.
In support of the ask, Hangar Theatre Managing Director RJ Lavine made the point that the theater’s location is a stellar example of adaptive re-use in the city, the type of redevelopment that Ithaca has normally encouraged. Plus, she pointed out, the city technically owns the building and has committed to its upkeep. Hangar Theatre officials have indicated in recent months that the flooding may threaten their future in the current location if the situation isn’t rectified, especially since they can no longer get private flood insurance.
“The idea was to take a building that wasn’t doing anything for the community and turn it into something useful,” Lavine said. “The Hangar Theatre Company has taken full financial responsibility for the building for the benefit of the public. So, since we’ve exhausted the mitigation efforts in the building, we’re asking for the city to help us deal with those occasional flooding events […] and to see what might be able to happen outside the building to mitigate flooding.”
McGonigal asked, directly, what the chances were that any solution could actually be found since, as he and others put it during the meeting—the Hangar is, basically, in a swampland area.
“I’m hoping that what comes out of the study is an easy solution,” Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne said. “If there was an easy solution, it would have been figured out by now. It would be helpful to know, though, what the options are so that the Hangar could get into some sort of fundraising, or if the Hangar became eligible for some sort of grant, we would have an idea for what we’re talking about.”
Public Works Director Tim Logue largely agreed with that assessment, though he mentioned that the study may give the city an idea of the scale of necessary fixes. The funding was unanimously approved.
Other news and notes:
- Activist Mona Sulzman spoke in favor of a resolution from the city that would condemn Clint Halftown’s challenged position as leader of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ (also known as Cayuga Nation) people. She was followed by a long list of speakers echoing that sentiment, including Tompkins County Legislator Veronica Pillar. The Town of Dryden recently passed a similar resolution.
- The committee also approved an application for $9 million in funding from the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Thorne said the city has asked FEMA if they could hold off on publishing the maps, because of the potentially damaging effects it would have on flood insurance locally and realizing the city’s mitigation efforts, but that FEMA has been unreceptive so far.
- The Committee approved the release of funding for Southside Community Center, to the tune of $200,000, as is usually allocated in the city’s annual budget.