Hybrid Cab Fleet Rolls Toward Approval in Arlington
Taxi Drivers Worry About Competition

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

The streets of Arlington County could get a little greener if a new taxi company offering fuel-efficient, low-emission hybrid cabs wins approval to operate in the county.

The Arlington Transportation Commission gave its approval to enviroCAB last week at the panel's annual taxi meeting and recommended that the company be allowed to operate 35 cabs in the county.

The company must now seek approval from the County Board, which could have a public hearing on the proposal as soon as September.

"We think the proposal was really well received," said Hans Hess, owner of enviroCAB. "The county has been very progressive and very open."

Five of the six cab companies already operating in the county also requested additional operating certificates to boost their fleets; like enviroCAB, which had requested 100 certificates, they got part of what they sought. Seventy-six of the 215 new certificates requested were recommended for approval, according to Richard Hartman, a transportation planner with the county's Department of Environmental Services.

"The commission liked the idea of hybrid taxis, but they felt that the total number requested was probably too many, so they tried to balance among the existing companies and the new company with the number of taxis they recommended," Hartman said.

If approved by the County Board, enviroCAB would become the seventh taxicab service in Arlington, and the first to rely solely on hybrid cars. Red Top Cab is purchasing five hybrids for its fleet, while enviroCAB is launching with owner-purchased, owner-operated cabs.

Red Top was recommended for 20 new certificates and plans to use them all for hybrid cabs, said Charlie King, the company's vice president. Five hybrid cars will arrive this month to replace current cabs.

"We're as concerned with energy dependence as anyone," King said. "We feel that the hybrids incorporated into an established fleet operation will produce more service to the public."

But some county residents and drivers said that there are already enough taxis on the streets and that more cabs could have a negative impact on business.

"This is definitely going to hurt the drivers, because they're dealing with a finite market," said Lou Gatti, 58, an Arlington resident and former taxi driver. "The population growth of a county does not equal more taxicabs."

Gatti, who drove a Red Top cab 30 years ago and now owns the Quarterdeck Restaurant in Rosslyn, said that environmentally oriented enviroCAB is a good idea, "but at the expense of the cabs already there."

Hartman said the commission considered the impact to existing drivers in making its recommendations.

"They tried to limit the number of new taxis they were recommending -- it was far less than had been requested by the different companies," Hartman said. "Obviously, if you do have a significant number of new taxis on the street, the business of the current drivers is diluted somewhat."

It has been several years since Arlington substantially increased the number of taxicabs permitted. With the growth the county has experienced, commission members determined that some additional service was justified, though they lacked data on the exact number of cabs needed, Hartman said.

"What the transportation commission did was try to do a balancing act between a need stated by the applicants for additional taxis and some of the testimonies of the drivers that we really don't need any additional taxis," he said.

Hess and partner Cord Thomas launched enviroCAB in May, three years after coming up with the idea. It seemed like the right time to move forward because of the Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions, Hess said.

Company officials said enviroCAB drivers will drive either the Toyota Prius or the Ford Escape hybrid.

Hess acknowledged that enviroCAB isn't guaranteed anything until the County Board makes its decision, but his hope is that 35 is the baseline number of cabs and that he will be able to eventually increase that number.

"Right now, our job is to go out and engage the community and focus on grass-roots support," Hess said. "The first part of it is the education piece.

"Most people, I think, are going to be willing to hop in an enviroCAB because they're going to make the connection because of what it does for the environment," Hess said, adding that one misconception is that it will cost more to ride in an enviroCAB. Taxi rates are regulated by the county, not cab companies.

County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) said he supports the concept but said the board also wants to factor in the other cab companies when making its decision.

"I think there's a good possibility the board would approve it," Ferguson said. "The only real concern is just fairness to the other cab companies. I think it's a good concept and something that I hope will succeed."

With enviroCAB and Red Top hybrids on the roads, Arlington would join several major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Denver and San Francisco, that have either added or approved the addition of hybrids to their taxi services.

For Hess, it's a matter of thinking about the future and the environment: "It's important to me as a father. . . . I don't want to live in a world where I have to check to make sure I can take my daughter outside for a walk. The issue is very personal to me, and I take it seriously."

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