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Taxi drivers should be exempt from NYC congestion pricing, council members say



taxi drivers should

Yellow cabbies should be exempted from congestion pricing tolls coming to Manhattan as well as a surcharge that is already in place, according to two City Council members.

Councilmen Ydanis Rodriguez and Fernando Cabrera on Tuesday called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA to establish the carveout before the new tolls take effect, which is expected in 2021. Their request came in response to an extensive investigation from The New York Times detailing how thousands of immigrant workers fell victim to predatory loans that saddled them with crippling debt, as lenders fattened their pockets and the government ignored warning signs.

“Our taxi drivers are currently facing a financial epidemic unlike we’ve ever seen. This crisis … did not happen overnight,” said Rodriguez, the chair of the Transportation Committee. “This is the result of an accumulation of lack of leadership and bad decisions for many decades.”

Yellow taxis and other for-hire vehicles are already subjected to a congestion pricing surcharge, which took effect in February. Yellow cabs operating in Manhattan below 96th Street saw an added $2.50 fee on top of the $5.50 base fare just to get in the vehicle. Ubers, Lyfts and other car services driving in the area are hit with a $2.75 surcharge.

The surcharge has angered the professional driving industry and arrived amid a series of driver suicides, which advocates have blamed on economic hardships plaguing the industry.

But the request to be exempt from the surcharge and a future toll flies in the face of transportation experts and environmental advocates who have argued exceptions would lessen the impact of the policy — both from the standpoint of traffic reduction and transit funding.

Rodriguez and Cabrera, the later of whom opposes congestion pricing outright, are the latest politicians to speak out following the Times’ investigation, though the issues had been reported before and overlooked by city, state and federal elected officials. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced an investigation into lending practices around taxi medallions and Mayor Bill de Blasio followed with a separate investigation into the brokers involved in arranging the loans.

“The review will set down strict new rules that prevent broker practices that hurt drivers,” de Blasio said in a statement. “It’s unacceptable to prey on hardworking New Yorkers trying to support their families and we’ll do all that we can to put an end to it.”

It’s not clear yet what impact the congestion surcharges will have on the yellow cab industry, though the former commissioner of the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission predicted they would be “devastating.” Yellow taxi trips have actually increased slightly as the new fees took effect, from 247,315 average daily trips in January of this year to 252,634 in March. But monthly averages tend to have sizable fluctuations and trips are still down when you compare that three-month span to the same point last year — part of a long downward slide in trips that came as e-hails like Uber and Lyft flooded the city with cars.

The MTA and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“Without an exemption from the congestion surcharge, taxi drivers — whether they are lease-drivers or owner-drivers — simply won’t earn enough to survive, even if their expenses go down,” said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.


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Uber, lyft and other taxis

De Blasio taxi chief ducks blame for medallion collapse




yellow cab

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s taxi czar won’t take the blame for the yellow-cab industry’s checkered past.

Called before the City Council on Monday to explain the plunge in medallion values that sent the industry into a tailspin, acting Taxi and Limousine Commission Chairman Bill Heinzen pointed to the state Department of Financial Services, credit unions, the National Credit Union Administration, apps like Uber and Lyft and even the council itself.

Heinzen was reacting to charges from Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres calling the industry’s implosion “one of the greatest government scandals in the history of New York City.”

The roughly 80% drop in medallion values since 2014 has resulted in numerous driver bankruptcies, prompting a two-part series in The New York Times that moved Torres to investigate. Eight drivers—not all from the yellow-cab segment of the industry—have committed suicide.

Heinzen maintained that the TLC’s auctioning of medallions and oversight of the sector was not the problem. Instead, he faulted Uber and Lyft for cutting into traditional cab drivers’ revenues, the council for rejecting in 2015 a de Blasio-backed moratorium on new e-hail vehicles (which it finally supported last year), the credit unions for offering medallion owners untenable loans, the state banking regulator for failing to stop ill-fated lending and the National Credit Union Administration for advising credit unions to shorten amortization periods on such mortgages, thus driving up monthly payments.

For good measure, he also blamed the NCUA for now holding more medallion loans than any other creditor, because of its takeover of struggling operations, and for denying relief to the indentured.

“What I’m trying to do, and what I’ve done in my testimony, is to provide the context that I think is lacking, which is to show all of the market players here, all of the forces at play here, in terms of the medallion market,” Heinzen told Torres. “If you’re asking me whether TLC is responsible for all of these banks writing all of these loans, and these credit unions writing unsound loans—no.”

Heinzen’s testimony followed emotion accounts by two taxi drivers of their personal financial struggles and suicidal thoughts. The acting commissioner denied “moral culpability” for the situation, but said he felt sorry for those impacted.

Torres, however, highlighted a 2011 memo by a city tax consultant that determined that the cost of repaying loans had already become unmanageable for individual drivers three years before Uber use surged in the five boroughs. He also highlighted TLC rules that list among its responsibilities to “establish and enforce standards to ensure all licensees are and remain financially stable.”

Torres also noted that the TLC continued through the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations to do business with figures such as former taxi-fleet kingpin Evgeny Freidman, despite their own reports that he was an unreliable and irresponsible actor.

Freidman, now convicted of tax fraud, was among the biggest financial supporters of de Blasio’s 2013 campaign.

“Everyone is to blame except the city regulator, TLC, even though the medallion is controlled by your agency?” the incredulous councilman said.

Heinzen, though, probably won’t get stuck with the fare: The mayor last week nominated Jeffrey Roth to run the embattled taxi regulator.


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Uber, lyft and other taxis

Do You Understand the Fine Print of Your Loan Agreement?




loan agreement

Make a bad investment? You’re only going to lose the money you put down. Sign a shoddy loan agreement? You may end up in bottomless debt.

For thousands of New York taxi drivers, however, both ended up being the case. According to a New York Times expose published this spring, much of the profession’s financial ruin – and, tragically, rampant suicide rates – can be traced to the deliberate overpricing of taxi medallions (the city’s taxi license) and the predatory loans cabbies took out to afford them.

There’s little argument that the taxi drivers weren’t taken advantage of, with many lacking the English language skills to do their due diligence. The problem is that not all predatory loans are unlawful loans. While usury laws can cap interest rates and payday loans are outright banned in some states, many unethical lenders are still able to operate within the realm of legality.
Failing to read the fine print of a loan agreement can have life-altering consequences. If you’re a small business owner who has been approved for a business loan, the hard part may be over, but don’t let your jubilance get the best of you. Read the fine print.

You’ll know you’ve been thorough if you can answer these seven questions:

1. Is the interest rate fixed or variable?
In a variable interest rate loan, the borrower pays the market’s interest rate plus or minus a fixed percentage. A variable rate commonly seen in business loans is the Wall Street Journal Prime Rate plus 2.5%. As the prime rate changes, so does the interest a borrower pays.

A fixed interest rate, however, is not affected by the market – the percentage remains the same. Variable rates tend to accrue less interest than fixed rates, however, this comes with greater risk, especially for loans with long amortization periods. A fixed interest rate secured when interest rates are low can shield borrowers from market changes.

Look out for interest-only loans. In a standard amortizing loan, borrowers pay off a bit of their principal, or the amount initially borrowed, in addition to interest for each installment. An interest-only loan, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like – but it doesn’t last forever. After the interest-only period, borrowers can either convert to a standard amortizing loan, pay off the whole debt in one balloon payment or refinance. [Interested in finding the right business loan for your small business? Check out our best picks and reviews.]

The advantage of interest-only loans, for those willing to take the risk, is that the initial required payments are lower – this can be a lifesaver for a cash-strapped small business. As with any other risky lending practice, however, they can also be used by predatory lenders to mislead inexperienced borrowers. Indeed, this was one of the many schemes The New York Times reported were used against taxi drivers, by leading borrowers to think they were slowly paying off their debts when they were only paying interest.

2. What is the annual percentage yield?
The annual percentage rate (APR), a combination of the total interest payable and all other fees averaged out over the term of the loan, provides a useful way to evaluate and compare loans with one quick figure. What APRs don’t factor for, however, is compounding interest, which is why borrowers should look at the annual percentage yield (APY), or earned annual rate (EAR), for a more accurate read on what they’ll have to pay. This is because unlike APR, which multiplies the interest rate by the number of times it’s applied (e.g., quarterly or monthly), the APY includes compound interest, or interest paid on previous interest.

Since APYs are higher – not to mention much harder to conceptualize – they’re less likely to be quoted by lenders. If that’s the case, borrowers can use this online calculator instead.

Look out for factor rates. It’s common for short-term loans or merchant cash advances to quote interest in the form of a factor rate – this is not to be confused with APR. While APR reflects interest charged on the remaining principal – meaning the more debt you chip away, the less interest you’ll owe – factor rates reflect interest for the entire principal, regardless of the number of installments or how quickly it’s paid off. Thus, a factor rate will accrue more interest than an APR of the same percentage.

That’s something Glenn Read learned the hard way when financing his small business, Allegra Marketing Print Mail, after being turned down for a traditional bank loan.

“I was forced to take out merchant cash advances (MCAs) and high-interest line of credit loans just to meet payroll and keep the lights on,” said Read. “One of the first MCAs I took out, the amount I was given was $40,000 and the payback was $56,000 for a one-year term.” As it happened, the merchant cash advance had charged a factor rate of 40%.

3. Whose credit rating is important?
“It’s important to understand the language of the nonbank lenders,” said Read. Whose credit rating is it based on?

A business loan is often based on a combination of both business and personal credit scores. For small businesses yet to prove creditworthiness, the owner’s personal credit score is especially critical.

“Few small businesses have a long enough track record to have a sufficient credit history,” said Brian Cairns, who runs his own consulting company ProStrategix Consulting Inc. After securing his own small business loan, Cairns now helps many of his clients do the same.

According to Cairns, personal credit concerns not just the founder, but any equity-holding partner. “If you or one of your partners owns a material part of the business (usually about 20% or more), your personal credit can affect your chances of getting a small business loan,” Cairns said.

Look out for unjustified risk-based pricing. A subprime loan, or a loan given to a borrower with a poor credit history, will often pay a risk premium of either higher interest rates, higher fees or both. Some predatory lenders take advantage of this reality by telling the borrower they have bad credit to ramp up interest rates, a practice known as unjustified risk-based pricing. This is an easy trap for inexperienced borrowers unaware of their own creditworthiness. Thus, an awareness of your personal and business credit rating can help you make sure you’re getting a fair price.

4. Do you have to put up collateral?
A secured loan means that the borrower must offer some sort of asset as collateral, or something that can be taken over by the lender in case of default. In mortgages, this is the property itself. An unsecured loan does not include any collateral.

While credit cards and student loans are common examples of unsecured loans, business loans will almost always require some sort of guarantee. Only well-established companies with long credit histories will stand a chance of getting an unsecured business loan.

Look out for personal guarantees. It’s common for small business loans to include a personal guarantee for the same reason personal credit scores come into play – many small businesses have yet to build creditworthiness on their own, making the owner liable instead. On top of that, small businesses may be lacking in assets that can be used as collateral. However, banks may not always be upfront about this.

“Most people don’t read the fine print and can be surprised when they learn that they put some of their personal finances at risk,” Cairns said.

The assertion comes from personal experience. “We caught it in our fine print that the bank was using our founders’ personal retirement savings as a personal guarantee for the loan.”

5. What is the payment and amortization schedule?
Interest rates and APR aside, business loans can also vary by payment schedule. This includes not just the number of payment periods per year, but the inclusion of grace periods, late payment fees and prepayment penalties.

One thing lenders don’t often explicitly specify in the fine print is the amortization schedule, or the schedule of how much of the debt is repaid each month. Remember that in each installment, some of the money a borrower is charged pays off the principal, or the amount of money they were initially lent, and some of it is paying off the interest, which can be seen as a fee for the lender’s services. As a loan reaches maturity, the proportion of each installment paid toward principal increases while the proportion paid toward interest decreases.

The difference between an amortization schedule and a payment schedule is that with the latter, the amount of principal and interest owed each installment is added together into one total amount charged. An amortization schedule, meanwhile, lets borrowers see the exact breakdown, showing how much debt they still hold at any given time during the life of the loan.

It’s important for borrowers to know where they stand with their debts, as these can affect their credit rating. A savvy borrower can also use the amortization rate to calculate how much they’d save in interest by paying off their loan early. Thus, borrowers are advised to plug their loan details into an online amortization calculator.

Look out for prepayment penalties. Getting penalized for paying a loan off early may sound counterintuitive, but the earlier the borrower repays the principal, the less interest they’ll have to pay over the life of the loan if it’s a standard amortizing loan. Since lenders rely on that interest to make a profit, charging a prepayment penalty can offset some of that lost future interest. The good news is that while common for mortgages, prepayment penalties are rarely included in small business loans.

6. What is the lender’s definition of default on payments?
Some borrowers will hang on to the fine print word for word, only to give a cursory glance to the part about defaulting – no one wants to entertain that possibility. What they don’t know is that some lenders may have strict interpretations of what it means to default, creating expensive mistakes down the line. This is why Jared Weitz, founder and CEO of small business lender United Capital Source Inc, stresses the importance of doing your homework.

“One piece of language and content to look out for is the time period allowed to make amends after receiving a default notice,” said Weitz. “If you read this prior to signing and default your loan, you will already know what to do and how quickly it must be done.”

There are some instances in which a borrower can pay on time and still go into technical default. This is a result of violating other terms of the loan, such as failing to provide tax returns or taking on additional debt.

Look out for Confessions of Judgment. A Confession of Judgment (COJ), or cognovit vote, is a written agreement signed by the borrower that forfeits their rights to dispute any actions taken by the lender upon default. This means that if a borrower defaults, the lender can present the COJ in court and obtain a judgment without the borrower ever being notified, let alone given the opportunity to defend themselves.

“These days, it seems the No. 1 predatory lending scheme that SMBs are prone to is the use and misuse of Confessions of Judgement,” said Weitz.

According to Weitz, such predatory lenders profit by enforcing the COJ as soon as the business owner defaults before owners are even given the chance to cure the default in the time specified in the loan agreement. “These predatory lenders go into the financing agreement with the intention of default so that they can seize the business and personal assets of the business owner.”

Luckily, COJs are not a necessary evil. “There are many lenders out there that will work with you without the use of a COJ, so when shopping around make sure you mention that you will not agree to any terms that involve a COJ,” said Weitz.

7. How does the lender make money?
The best thing small business owners can do to get a fair loan agreement is to ascertain where the lender’s profits are coming from.

A fair lender should be turning most of their profit from interest rates reasonably based on the borrower’s credit history. Look out for lenders raking in profit from penalties or seized collateral, however. If the lender earns more money that way than from interest, then they’ll be incentivized to reverse engineer loan agreements to force borrowers into default. Indeed, this is exactly how many predatory lending schemes are conceived – which is why no borrower should enter a contract in which the lender profits from their failure.

It’s unlikely that your lender is going to let you read their income statement, but such loans are usually made obvious by the too-good-to-be-true interest rates, excessive fees and lack of any grace period. You can also look up your lender’s rating on the Better Business Bureau.

Bottom line
The takeaway is not that some loan terms are bad and should never sign the agreement. The takeaway is that you should never sign a loan agreement until you understand every term in the fine print. Do not hesitate to consult a lawyer if that’s what it takes.

Many of the same terms used in predatory lending schemes are also effective financing tools for borrowers willing to take a bit of risk, as long as they know what they’re signing onto. By that same token, lenders deemed safe may still include unexpected terms and conditions that end up ruining borrowers who didn’t do their due diligence. In conclusion, read the fine print!


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Uber, lyft and other taxis

The Bug That Crashed New York’s Wireless Network




yellow cab

For at least a year, federal officials and technology companies had been warning of the so-called GPS rollover, a once-in-20-year event that had the potential to wreak havoc on computer networks around the world.

The simple remedy involved some necessary upgrades.

Yet somehow, New York City’s technology managers were caught completely off guard, and did nothing to prepare for the calendar reset of the centralized Global Positioning System.

As a result, a wireless network used by city agencies crashed in April, crippling many services that relied on it, including some Police Department license plate readers and a system to remotely control traffic lights. It took 10 days to get the network running again.

Officials at several city agencies, including the Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management, knew about the rollover, according to a report released by the city on Friday.

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But officials at the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoiTT), which was responsible for operating the wireless network, claimed “that they were not aware” of the rollover before it occurred, the report said.

After the network went down, confusion, poor communication and a lack of coordination hampered attempts to get it working again, according to the report, which was compiled by the consulting firm Gartner at a cost of $300,000.
A week before the report’s release, the DoiTT commissioner, Samir Saini, resigned. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Mr. Saini wanted to return to the private sector, and disputed the notion that his departure was connected to the failure.

The report did not name any of the people who were responsible for the missteps, and the city has not publicly disciplined anyone in relation to the incident.

Nonetheless, the report, with its revelations of poor preparation and the chaotic response, could be embarrassing for Mr. de Blasio, who is running for president and has argued that his experience managing the nation’s largest city makes him more qualified than other candidates.

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On the day the wireless network crashed, Mr. de Blasio was in Nevada, an early primary state, as he considered whether to declare his candidacy for president. City Hall initially tried to hide the shutdown. It made no public acknowledgment of the problem and, in response to questions from The New York Times, officials initially characterized it as a routine maintenance issue.

The report does not indicate when Mr. de Blasio was told of the problem or whether he was informed of the confusion surrounding the attempts to get it working again.

In a statement accompanying the report’s release, Laura Anglin, the deputy mayor for operations, who also oversees the information technology department, asserted that “there were no interruptions to city services during the NYCWiN outage,” but acknowledged that “it is critical we learn from this event.”

Ms. Anglin’s statement, however, is directly contradicted by the report, which details several service interruptions. About half of the city-operated signs showing arrival times at bus stops were disabled, as were about 200 cameras that provide online images of traffic conditions; many other tasks handled by the network were knocked offline, requiring city workers to be reassigned to perform the tasks manually.

The report made it clear the episode could easily have been avoided. The wireless network, like many other computerized systems, uses GPS data to keep track of time. The GPS rollover was widely known, and government and industry notices encouraged technology managers to upgrade systems to avoid possible interruptions.

The report’s authors interviewed eight top officials at the information technology department, including Mr. Saini. But the report said that no one at the agency admitted being aware of the approaching rollover. It does not say whether it considered those denials to be credible, given the amount of publicity related to the rollover in the technology industry.

Mr. Saini was hired just a year and a half ago by the mayor and was involved, among other key initiatives, in the modernization of the 911 system. Attempts to reach Mr. Saini were unsuccessful.

According to the report, the system could easily have been upgraded by replacing what is known as the firmware in the dozens of nodes, or antennas, that make up the network.

Northrop Grumman, the contractor that maintains and operates the network at a cost to taxpayers of $37 million a year, also did not alert city officials to the need for an upgrade, the report said.

“Northrop Grumman worked expeditiously” with city officials “to address the GPS rollover event,” said a company spokesman, Tim Paynter, in an emailed statement. Mr. Paynter did not respond to questions about whether Northrop informed the city of the need for upgrades ahead of the rollover.

Many passages in the 35-page report were blacked out, which city officials said was done for security reasons.

The wireless network was built for about $500 million and has been in use since 2008. But today it is used by only about 10 city agencies. The city plans to shut it down in the coming years and shift its wireless needs to commercial carriers, which it says will save money.

But the city has been slow to carry out plans for such a transition. The report recommended that New York review its technology infrastructure and warned that the city “may be exposed to more risk than necessary regarding technology-related incidents.”


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