Report Adds To Debate Over Putting Meters In D.C. Cabs

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

When the D.C. Taxicab Commission meets Wednesday night to talk once again about whether meters or zones are better, a deadline will be approaching.

U.S. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D.-Mich.), a longtime critic of D.C.'s zone system for calculating fares, added a provision to legislation last year that gives the District until October to require meters in cabs. But it also allows Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to opt out by executive order.

The issue has been debated for decades, but a new study could play into the decision-making. Fenty has avoided taking a position, vowing to examine the matter until the October deadline. But the mayor's propensity to embrace change raises anew the possibility of ditching zones for meters. The fact that discussion is being spurred by a Michigan senator only adds to the controversy.

"I'm an old home-rule guy -- I think the decision should be made by the local officials," Levin said in an interview Thursday. "But they can't continue to avoid making a decision."

Levin, who drove taxis during college, said he gets complaints from visitors confused by zones. In January, he wrote a letter to Fenty criticizing the District for being the only major U.S. city that uses zones instead of meters. In May, displeased that Fenty had not taken a position on taxi meters, Levin temporarily blocked the mayor's takeover of the D.C. schools.

At Wednesday's D.C. Taxicab Commission meeting, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Jr. library, the new study of meters versus zones will be on the table. Leon J. Swain Jr., whom Fenty appointed commission chairman last month, said the study is one of a number of things the panel will consider in a recommendation to the mayor.

The study, which tracked 25 D.C. taxis outfitted with meters (though drivers continued to collect zone fares), highlights much that previous studies have shown. Basically, short trips are cheaper by meter; longer trips are cheaper by zone, Swain said.

"This is a ball that has been batted back and forth since 1951, and it's now 2007," Swain said this week. "We're trying to find that happy medium." Swain, a commission member since 1994, declined to state his position on the issue.

There are about 140,000 cab rides each day in the District, Swain said. "They provide a great service, but, like everything else, there comes a time when you need to step up the quality of service," he said.

According to the study, the average meter fare was 53 cents less than the average zone fare.

But the difference varied with distance. For trips of 1 to 1.99 miles, the average zone fare was $1.65 more than the meter fare. For trips of 10 miles to 14.99 miles, the average zone fare was $2.22 less than with meters.

The study was conducted by George Washington University's School of Public Policy and Public Administration from Oct. 1, 2005, to May 30, 2006.

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