The Williams administration has enlisted three universities in the District to help test fare meters in taxis, with the goal of replacing the zone-based system used by cabdrivers since the Depression era.
In January, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development plans to begin a pilot program involving at least two dozen cabs, all of which will operate with meters for eight to 12 months.
George Washington University, Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia assisted in developing the program more than a year ago and have agreed to participate in analyzing the data collected by the drivers.
"The basic thinking here is that you need someone reputable and outside of the government to do the research," said Chris Bender, a spokesman for the deputy mayor's office. He said passengers who take metered taxis during the pilot period will be required to pay the zone fare and not the electronically generated amount.
"We want to figure out what the right meter fares should be, including the appropriate drop rate," Bender said.
Switching to meters is just one way Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) wants to overhaul cab service and regulation. Last month, Williams submitted legislation to the D.C. Council that calls for abolishing the city's nine-member Taxicab Commission and creating a Taxicab and Limousine Services Administration, which would be folded into the D.C. Department of Transportation. The new entity would be headed by an administrator appointed by the transportation director.
Many of the city's 6,600 licensed taxi drivers held a one-day strike this month to protest the bill, as well as the mayor's campaign to institute a meter system. Cabdrivers say meters would hurt business by making cab rides more expensive, particularly for residents in outlying areas of the city. But the administration has argued that the zone system is too complicated for passengers and is susceptible to abuse by dishonest drivers.
Bender said the pilot program was put on hold while the administration sought funding. Officials have now come up with commitments for $250,000, or "the minimum needed," to fund the meter program. The deputy mayor's office will put up $50,000, the Transportation Department will make $100,000 available, and an additional $100,000 will come from business groups, according to Bender.
The universities recommended that the project start in January and last up to a year to reflect seasonal variations in ridership. To date, Bender said, the District has received commitments from 14 taxis. The city is also seeking commitments from a half-dozen meter manufacturers to supply, install and calibrate the meters at no cost to the District or the taxi owner.
The taxis will be outfitted with decals alerting riders that they are taking a metered survey cab. Drivers in the program will keep the zone fares they earn and receive an additional $7 a day to compensate them for the time they take to survey riders. They will be trained to ask passengers certain questions about their views on meters.
"It is expected that . . . these vehicles will yield empirical data on the potential impact of meters on driver income and the change in cost to riders from various locations in the District," says a summary sheet of the program prepared by the District.
Maybelle Taylor Bennett, director of the Howard University Community Association, said: "I think they are using universities because they want an objective point of view here from institutions that routinely analyze data. That way, they can build in more of an assurance of credibility."