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The plan was to have already been well into installing in all DC taxicabs new electronic meters incorporating GPS and credit card payment functionality. And, as in New York City and elsewhere that these meters are being used, there would be a TV-like feature that would allow passengers to track their routes — and also be subjected to advertising messages (!).

But no sooner had the installations started to get underway that a major glitch brought everything to a standstill when the District’s Contract Appeals Board issued a stop order for the installation of the Taxicab Smart Meter System (TSMS), due to the fact that the District had not meet the burden of compelling circumstances necessary to justify the installation of the taxi meters before the protest that had been filed by the losing bidders has been decided. Ride Charge, Inc. and Creative Mobile Technologies had appealed the contract awarded to VeriFone for the smart meters, arguing that the $35 million contract was unfairly awarded to VeriFone and excluded other bidders from the selection process.

We think the Board’s ruling was correct and that the Mayor’s Office of Contracts and Procurement was wrong in pushing forward until the issues raised were resolved following the established legal procedures.

All this fumbling has caused many to wonder what’s really behind all this rushing to satisfy VeriFone and how will all that benefit DC residents who use taxis, not to say anything about DC taxpayers who will be footing the $35 million bill. One astute DC resident, Matthew Forman, raised a number of questions that were posted to TheMail, the twice-weekly e-letter that circulates widely through the local political and “good government” community. We think this commentary is very much worth sharing with our readers and so we set it out below:

“Can someone please explain the deal with the new smart meters to me? What exactly is the city getting for $35 million? Why is the city paying for it and procuring the service, now under bid protest? If uniformity is desired, why doesn’t the city just mandate a technical standard and have the taxis purchase the meter from whatever vendors are selling it? Do the taxis have to pay anything for installation, and if so, to whom are they paying it, if the city is already paying $35 million? What is the surcharge being used for? Will it repay the $35 million, or will non-cab-riding taxpayers and cash-paying cab riders have to foot the bill for the fraction of the population that wants the convenience of using a credit card for a cab ride? Why don’t only the credit card riders have to pay the surcharge? Do the taxis collect the surcharge and forward it to the city coffers? How many bureaucrats will it take to track all that? Who’s paying for the credit card service fee charged by Visa to the merchant? I tried to Google all this and search newspaper and city government web sites, but came up with incomplete and conflicting reports.

[Editor’s note: the surcharge referred to above is the extra 50-cents that will be tacked for every ride for the purpose of contributing toward the cost of installation. Not even New York City’s taxi and limousine commission imposes such an extra charge.]

“I don’t understand what could possibly cost $35 million —- divided by 6,500 cabs, that’s over five thousand dollars per cab. A cabdriver could get the same functionality for only a few hundred dollars with either a smartphone or tablet, such as GPS and credit card reader — the “square” reader is free to obtain, and used by many merchants such as Starbucks. The whole thing could be done with an iPhone or iPad app for a fraction of the cost. I’ve been in a taxicab in New York city, and I don’t see how it’s worth paying a fifty cent surcharge every time I get in a cab to be able to look at a little TV screen feeding me propaganda from NBC.”