D.C. cabdrivers protest fare hike and other changes

January 11, 2012

There was standing room only at the D.C. Taxicab Commission meeting Wednesday, when city cab drivers and others aired their grievances about the commission’s recently approved fare hike.

More than a dozen cab drivers spoke at the two-hour meeting, which was devoted entirely to comments from the public. Drivers said they are concerned that the per-mile rate increase is not enough and that placing an age limit on their cars is akin to “genocide,” according to one driver.

“This is a lethal injection to wipe us [D.C. taxicab drivers] out,” Mechal Chame said to raucous applause from his peers.

Under the controversial rules, approved by the commission in December, the “drop rate” — the base fare passengers are charged at the beginning of a cab ride — would remain $3, but the per-mile rate would jump from $1.50 to $2.16. This is 59 cents less than cab drivers had requested.

The wait-time rate would increase from $15 to $25 an hour and fees for luggage, additional passengers, pets, emergency fuel surcharge and personal service would be eliminated.

Additionally, a five-year age limit would phase out older, higher-mileage vehicles.

While Chairman Ron Linton has said the changes are “reasonable,” the taxicab community has been vocal in its disappointment.

“Eliminating the extra fees is not a reasonable thing to do,” said E.J. Chubbs, a cab driver. “We would be pleased with $2 per mile [instead of $2.16] and not eliminating the extra fees. You’re taking away, not giving,” he told the commission.

“This pushes drivers farther down to poverty,” Negede Abede said in agreement.

Shahid Qureshi, another city cab driver, objected to the age limit, calling it “ridiculous.”

“You’re going to put a lot of drivers out of business, especially the old-timers,” Qureshi said. “I don’t think they can afford” replacing their cars without financing help from the city.

The commission has never indicated that it would help drivers fund compliance with the new regulations.

“You’re pushing this down [our] throats,” Qureshi said.

Only two speakers said the changes don’t go far enough to improve service while maintaining riders’ rights.

Lynne Breaux, the president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said that D.C. “is a world-class city with a third-class taxi system.”

Breaux called the new regulations a “piecemeal” approach that would take years to realize fully, and asked the commission to hire a third-party analyst to do a study and come up with a better plan.

She said the age limit on cars is a “meager bone” in the grand scheme of safety improvements — driver training and added technology such as a panic button — that she believes are required to create a top-notch system.

Jack Jacobson, a representative from D.C. Taxi Watch, said the rider advocacy group supports the bulk of the changes — namely the elimination of “arbitrary, confusing” surcharges for luggage and additional passengers — but would suggest limiting the per-mile fare increase.

Jacobson also asked that the commission either factor gratuity into the estimated driver’s income, which Linton estimated dropped 20 percent to 30 percent when the zone system was replaced by meters in 2008, or to post a notice inside cabs that the gratuity is included in the fare.

One woman, Dona Burney, called the changes “a win for the drivers and a win for the public.” Her opinion was met by a roomful of boos from the audience.

“This is not in the best interest of the riders or the drivers,” countered Lewis Sparks. “The people I see gaining are the automotive industry, car companies, banks and insurance companies. The other two entities,” riders and drivers, “will lose.”

Although the commission will not vote again, Linton said the public feedback could lead to further changes.

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