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Doubting if Tomorrow Will Ever Come for Taxi
New York City’s attempt to reimagine its taxicab experience, perhaps the least divisive of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s legacy-making transportation efforts, now appears to be the most at risk.

One measure, creating a vibrant street hail network of livery cabs outside Manhattan, has been mired in court since last June, delaying its implementation indefinitely.

Another, allowing New Yorkers to hail yellow taxis using smartphone apps, was watered down amid heavy lobbying from the livery and black car industries — and will most likely face a legal challenge.

Then there was the crown jewel, cast in yellow: the so-called Taxi of Tomorrow, a nearly complete redesign of the modern taxi, the first since the age of the Checker cab. Now, that, too, is imperiled.

A recent suit filed by the Greater New York Taxi Association challenges that the Taxi of Tomorrow plan violates a little-known section of the city’s administrative code because the vehicle, a Nissan NV200, is not a hybrid.

According to the provision, the city “shall approve one or more hybrid electric vehicle models for use as a taxicab” and any approved model “shall be eligible for immediate use by all current and future medallion owners.”

And it is not as though there will be other models to choose from: Nissan’s 10-year contract with the city, worth an estimated $1 billion, stipulated that it would be the sole manufacturer for virtually all of the city’s 13,000 cabs. (A small number of existing hybrid medallion owners are exempt from the mandate to purchase a Nissan.)

Amid the assorted blows to the mayor’s taxi policy, other major items on his transportation agenda — the creation of bicycle lanes and pedestrian plazas — have prospered despite legal challenges and some opposition.

More than three years of work have gone into the Taxi of Tomorrow, for which the city issued a request for proposals in December 2009. The result was a vehicle with distinctive features: transparent roof panels and “lower-annoyance” horns, a special exterior light that flashes when a driver honks and seats “as strong and cleanable as vinyl with the comfort of leather,” according to the commission.

But the choice of the NV200 inspired the ire of advocates for the environment and proponents of accessibility. The vehicle is not wheelchair-accessible, but it can be retrofitted to become so. In December, John C. Liu, the city comptroller, rejected the Nissan contract, though it was unclear what practical effect the action would have.

With the latest suit, though, industry officials said Mr. Liu’s objective might be accomplished for him.

Nora C. Marino, a member of the taxi commission’s board who has opposed the Taxi of Tomorrow, predicted that the vehicle, in its current form, would never reach the road.

“Frankly, I agree with a lot of the allegations,” Ms. Marino said, referring to the suit filed by the Greater New York Taxi Association, which represents medallion owners of many hybrid and wheelchair-accessible taxis. “As an attorney, I think it’s a good complaint.”

The suit also argues that the city does not have the authority to mandate the purchase of a given vehicle.

The city’s Law Department and its Taxi and Limousine Commission would not address how they planned to proceed with the case, or whether the relevant section of the administrative code had been considered before the Taxi of Tomorrow plan was approved.

David S. Yassky, the city’s taxi commissioner, is familiar with the city’s administrative code requiring hybrids; as a city councilman, he supported the measure when it was adopted in 2005. He said in an interview that he believed the Taxi of Tomorrow would go forward as scheduled. But his predecessor, Matthew W. Daus, who was the city’s taxi commissioner when the Taxi of Tomorrow plan began but was not involved in the selection process, registered doubts.

“It’s a problem for the city,” said Mr. Daus, now a partner at the law firm Windels Marx Lane and Mittendorf, where his focus is transportation law. “This is a real, credible threat.”

He said that the administrative code had been written narrowly, explicitly calling for a “hybrid electric vehicle” option, not simply a fuel-efficient car. The city has argued that the yellow taxi fleet’s gas mileage will increase once the Taxi of Tomorrow is widely used.

An administration official, who requested anonymity because the city’s legal strategy had not been determined, suggested a possible counterargument: the code requires the commission to approve a hybrid vehicle “within 90 days after the enactment of this law,” which the administration did. Taken literally, the official said, the provision could be interpreted to apply only to the moment of the bill’s passage in 2005, even if hybrid alternatives would not be available once the Taxi of Tomorrow was fully implemented.

If such logic fails, it is unclear how the city might expect to circumvent the provision while keeping its exclusive commitment to Nissan. (The company would not comment on the lawsuit or its contract with the city.)

The City Council has the authority to amend the code, but seems unlikely to provide a solution. Last September, Councilman James Vacca and Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker and a presumptive Democratic front-runner for mayor, wrote a letter to Mr. Yassky expressing concerns about “reducing the number of green taxis on our streets.”

The city has attracted myriad lawsuits over its taxi policy in recent years, facing attacks from well-financed corners of the yellow and the for-hire taxi industries. Last June, a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan blocked the city’s all-borough taxi plan, passed by the State Legislature in 2011 after the administration had been rebuffed by the City Council. The judge rejected the city’s justification for the maneuver — that taxi policy is of state concern.

With taxi-hailing apps set to begin for yellow taxis as soon as this month, for-hire owners have retained the counsel of Randy M. Mastro, a former deputy mayor for operations under Rudolph W. Giuliani, in preparation for a possible suit. Livery and black-car operators, concerned about their business model, have protested that the apps violate the city’s longstanding ban on prearranged rides in yellow taxis.

“The taxi industry has now replaced social policy as the area where there’s the most court activity,” Mitchell Moss, the director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, said. “That litigation is now a part of taxi policy tells you how central this is to New York.”

Mr. Yassky said the city expected to overcome any suit against its app program, and to weather the all-borough taxi challenge in time to roll out the new “apple green” livery cabs before the administration’s time was up.

But he was careful to add a caveat.

“That’s not a certainty,” he said. “Nothing’s a certainty.”
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