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Plan to meter D.C. taxicabs stalls

(Published May 17, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

A plan to put fare meters in D.C. cabs stalled recently after taxi commission officials, who are pushing a citywide conversion to meters, had no answer to council membersí questions about the effect of meters on the cost of cab fare.

George Crawford, interim chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, told Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large, May 11 that he didnít know how much a one-mile trip would cost under a proposed meter system because the commissionís study was not yet complete.

"Well, I canít approve something if I donít have an answer to a simple question like that," Schwartz said. "I have no idea what weíre talking about ó is it cheaper? Is it more expensive?"

But cab drivers, who filled the council chamber to protest the meter plan, said they were happy to give her the answer: fares would go up.

For example, the cost of a trip from far Southeast Washington to Petworth in Northwest could jump from the current $9.25 zone charge to as much as $17.25 under meters, said Philip Lebet, acting chief dispatcher for Diamond Cab Co. A Diamond driver has used a meter set at Arlington County, Va., rates in a D.C. cab to compare rates for two dozen sample trips in the District and all would increase under a meter system, Lebet said.

A switch to meters "would harm many while benefiting a few," said Lebet, a 12-year veteran of the industry. He said he received an average of one fare complaint per month from passengers when he drove a zoned fare cab. With a metered cab, he said, he received about four complaints a week.

"I have watched more than a few customers become angry in my back seat as they watched the meter tick away while the cab sat in traffic," he said. "The meter can create disputes because the customer who might pay $5 every day for the same trip might be charged twice that because streets were closed, an accident occurred or lanes were blocked."

At issue, he said, are the interests of residents who are frequent riders versus the interests of tourists and visitors.

"People who live here know what their fares are going to be," he said. "With meters, people ask how much itís going to be and you have to guess. If you say $5 and it turns out to be $5.20, they start screaming."

The potential cost increase to consumers was enough to convince at least one council member the meter plan should be stopped.

"I am against it," said Councilwoman Sandra Allen, D-Ward 8, who represents an area where many people lack cars and depend on cabs. "This is not beneficial for East of the River constituents."

Schwartz, chair of the committee on public works, said she called the hearing to get public input on a plan that otherwise could have been implemented with little oversight.

Crawford said the commission had planned to hold a public hearing only after the switch to meters had been approved, to get input on the specifications of the meters.

Under questioning from Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, Crawford said the commission surveyed drivers regarding a switch to meters in 1990 but that he did not recall the results of the survey.

The commission is nevertheless pressing forward with the conversion, Crawford said, and is meeting regularly with three national taxi meter manufacturers to discuss meter features and specifications. A $5,000 study of the impact of meters on fares citywide should be complete in 30-60 days, and the commission hopes to have meters installed in all D.C. cabs by the end of the year.

The current zone fare system is "entirely unsuitable," said Crawford, formerly legal counsel to the commission. He noted the District is the only major city in the nation where taxi fares are computed by zones.

The zone system is confusing and unfair to passengers, especially out-of-town tourists, who can easily be overcharged by unscrupulous drivers, he said.

"To the passenger, it appears that there are no rules on how the fare is calculated," said Jonathan Gaffney, vice president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has long advocated a conversion to meters.

A meter system, Crawford countered, would provide an automated receipt, give passengers a more detailed account of the charges, and could eventually be programmed to accept credit cards. He even suggested taxis could be outfitted with global positioning equipment to identify cab locations by satellite.

But drivers said they fear increased rates could drive down overall ridership, especially in residential neighborhoods, and encourage unlicensed drivers offering cut-rate fares. Some were concerned about the cost of installing meters, which Schwartz said was estimated at up to $800 per cab.

"Drivers have good reason to believe the system ainít necessarily working for them," said Councilman David Catania, R-At large, noting a history of strained relations between drivers and the taxi commission. "They feel they are under siege. Now we are asking drivers to make a leap of faith. But is it fair when you are talking about peopleís livelihood, how they pay their mortgages, how they support their families, how they educate their children to say ĎJust trust us, it will be all rightí?"

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator