Arlington taxi fares to rise

November 19, 2011

Arlington County taxicab riders will pay 10 cents more per mile in 2012, the County Board decided Saturday, and passengers younger than 12 who accompany a full-fare customer will get a free ride.

The fare increase was intended to help cabbies who have gone more than three years without one. Originally the board planned to raise the “drop fee,” the charge when the meter starts running, by 25 cents and require all 765 licensed cabs to accept credit cards. About 90 percent of the taxis accept credit cards.

But the board members worried about a drop-fee increase’s impact on the poor and elderly, and also were swayed by more than 50 drivers who attended the public hearing.

Berhane Michael, a leader of the Arlington United Taxi Organization, which claims more than 100 members, said a 10-cents-per-mile increase would not be a hardship on most riders. The average cab trip in Arlington is five miles, but that includes the long-mileage runs to Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports, as well as the short hops to the grocery store, pharmacy or doctors’ offices.

“People most dependent on cabs and least able to afford it are taking very short trips,” said board Chairman Chris Zimmerman. “This represents a real choice in who’s going to pay more.” Raising the drop fee would have cost the short-trip riders more relative to the total cost of the trip than those headed to the airports on business, he noted.

No one at the hearing spoke as a consumer. Several cabbies spoke against raising any prices in the current economy, but they were outmatched by the large group of drivers who supported Michael’s position.

The board also declined to take the staff recommendation to raise the $1 extra-passenger fee to $1.50, but it did accept the proposal to charge the existing fee only if the extra rider is 12 or older. That fee is currently charged for children 6 and older.

Much of the hearing, however, focused on the drivers’ testimony that the companies they work for charge them a 5 percent transaction charge for every credit card swiped.

“We’ve been penalized. Companies are making money off us,” said driver Ahmed Benaddi. “They are charged 21 / 2 percent and they charge us 5 percent.”

The county does not have the legal authority to control the terms of payment between the cab companies and the drivers, who are independent contractors. But that didn’t stop board members from pushing for better terms between the groups.

“When you go to a restaurant and pay with a credit card, you don’t expect the waiter is going to have to pay the processing fee,” board member Jay Fisette said.

Representatives from four cab companies who were at the hearing quickly responded that they make nothing on the credit processing charge, saying the setup and maintenance of the system and handling customer disputes cost them even more.

They also said they don’t want to allow the independent contractors who drive for them to use other, cheaper ways of processing charges rather than using their systems.

“People expect they’re doing business with Red Top, not John Smith,” said Charlie King, vice president of that firm, the county’s largest cab fleet. “Also, our system is very secure. . . . We’re not trying to recover all of our cost. . . . The rate is well within industry norms.”

King agreed with the county staff that drivers average $40,000 to $60,000 per year, figures which the cabbies also disputed.

“The average salary is closer to $32,000 before expenses,” said Michael, the driver leader who said he is also an accountant.

Board members instructed the county staff to consider the impact of imposing a consumer surcharge for using credit cards the next time taxi fares are reviewed. That normally happens every two years.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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