City Comptroller John C. Liu is expected to announce on Friday that he will not sign off on the Bloomberg administration’s contract with Nissan to provide New York City’s next generation of taxis, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Mr. Liu’s decision not to register the contract is sure to be widely praised by advocates for disabled people who have been deeply critical of the deal because the chosen model, the Nissan NV200, is not wheelchair accessible. But it is likely to have little practical impact. The City Charter says the comptroller must register contracts before they can be executed, but if the comptroller objects, the mayor can effectively override him, according to several legal experts.
What basis Mr. Liu will cite in refusing to register the contract was unclear on Thursday, and his office declined to comment. He has scheduled a news conference for Friday at 11:15 a.m.
Mr. Liu has threatened to block the deal since it was announced in May 2011 unless the Bloomberg administration did more to provide wheelchair-accessible taxis for disabled riders. Less than 2 percent of 13,000 taxis currently on the road are handicapped accessible.
Other critics of the deal, including several elected officials, have asked for an investigation into the selection process, which they contend might have been tainted by conflicts of interest. The Bloomberg administration sharply dismissed the criticisms Thursday.
“The City Charter gives the comptroller no authority whatsoever here, but his disregard for the law in this area is nothing new,” said Julie Wood, deputy press secretary for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “We selected Nissan because they will make the safest and most rider-friendly vehicle. It’s still unclear why the comptroller opposes giving New Yorkers the best taxi ever, but a press conference based on false allegations isn’t going to matter, and the contract will go forward.”
Beginning late next year, taxi medallion owners are expected to be required by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to buy the NV200, with a plan to phase the vehicles in over three to five years. The city has hailed the model as roomier and safer than its current taxis, with features that include transparent roof panels, phone chargers and “lower annoyance” horns, according to a presentation prepared by the commission for a recent public hearing.
The city selected the NV200 over vehicles proposed by Ford and the Turkish company Karsan Automotive in May 2011. But even before Mr. Liu’s announcement, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, and Assemblyman Micah Kellner sent him a letter charging that the competition might have been unduly influenced by a company hired by the commission to provide technical expertise in the selection process. The company, Ricardo Inc., had previously done work for Ford and Renault, the French automaker that owns 43 percent of Nissan.
If the comptroller believes that corruption has tainted the contracting process, he can refuse to register it and ask the mayor to reconsider. If the mayor disagrees, the comptroller then has 10 days to register it. The provisions were put in place by the 1989 Charter Revision Commission to prevent comptrollers from blocking contracts for political purposes.
“We didn’t want the controller playing politics with contracts,” said Eric Lane, dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, who was the commission’s executive director and chief counsel. “If the controller thinks it’s corrupt, he tells the mayor, he can announce it, he can call a press conference, he can say I found corruption, and if the mayor still wants it registered, the controller must register it.”
In June, a federal appeals court panel ruled that the city’s taxi system was compliant with federal disabilities law, rebuffing a class action brought by advocates for the disabled.
Despite the ruling, Julia Pinover, a staff lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates, which filed the lawsuit, said the litigation “was still very much alive.”
In an interview in September, after the taxi commission approved a set of standards governing the vehicle, David S. Yassky, the commission’s chairman, defended the city’s efforts to provide taxi accessibility. He noted that the commission had introduced a dispatch system allowing wheelchair users to arrange a ride in one of the city’s roughly 230 wheelchair-accessible taxis.
He also said that Nissan was “the most fuel-efficient car of any of the vehicles submitted in our design competition.”
But Ms. Pinover said the commission missed an opportunity in not insisting that the design include wheelchair ramps. She noted that NV200 taxis to be introduced to London streets next year will include such features, while in New York, “they chose an iPod deck, a moon roof, but not a ramp.”