By Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
D.C. cabdrivers upset about the impending switch from zones to meters yesterday launched the first in what might be a series of weekly strikes aimed at getting the attention of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the riding public.
The 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. strike left some early-morning passengers waiting outside Union Station and caused others to rethink their transportation plans. But hotels met the challenge with fleets of limousines and other hired cars, and officials reported that the strike caused few disruptions citywide. It was unclear how many drivers participated.
By late afternoon, taxis appeared plentiful downtown, and at Union Station, arriving passengers were met by such a stream of limousines that one person thought she had happened upon a black-tie affair. Some drivers demanded double the price of a taxi ride or more, leading to cross words from some people who refused to pay.
"What a vulture," said Jennifer Fitzpatrick, arriving from Baltimore, after a driver offered to take her to Chinatown for $20. "No way."
The strike, called by the newly formed Coalition of Cab Drivers, Companies and Associations of Washington, D.C., was the latest attempt to forestall a historic change in the way taxi fares are calculated in the city. For decades, the District has relied on a system of zones that many found confusing, but in October, Fenty (D) announced the April 6 switch to meters to bring the District in line with other major U.S. metropolitan areas. Since then, drivers opposed to the plan have held rallies and distributed leaflets. They staged a one-day strike in the fall.
Nathan Price, chairman of the coalition, described Fenty's plan yesterday as "either ill-conceived, or conceived very well to destroy the industry."
"We're trying to get the message out to the citizens, 'This is your system,' " Price said at a meeting at an Ethiopian church in Northeast attended by about 200 cabdrivers. "We asked last year, put it on a referendum. Don't let a small group of people decide this for everybody."
The coalition is considering more strikes. William J. Wright, president of the Taxicab Industry Group and a member of the coalition, said drivers will strike again next Tuesday, then on Wednesday the next week and so on. They also are considering striking next month during the opening of the new ballpark for the Washington Nationals, he said. But Price said the coalition board has not made a decision on what the next move will be.
The strike occurred on a rainy day, normally cause for high volume.
Liz DeBarros of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., said the strike was "definitely not a major disturbance. If it was, we'd be the first to know."
Dozens of limo drivers, hoping to make quick fares, showed up impromptu at Union Station. Not all were familiar with the zone fare structure, leading to some heated exchanges.
A passenger climbed in the back of a Mercedes sport-utility vehicle and agreed to pay $20 to get to the Capital Hilton. But when the driver invited other people waiting in line to get in, the initial passenger picked up his bags and left, telling the driver, "I'm not gonna let you piggyback."
The next person in line, Monique Jones, refused to pay when the driver requested $20 to go to the Willard Hotel. "They think because there's a strike in D.C. they can do anything they want," said Jones, who was visiting from Philadelphia. "We've been here half an hour. But I'm just not going to pay $20 to go to the Willard."
Rodney Wormley Jr., a cab dispatcher, urged the drivers along to keep the line moving.
"You can't be picky, and you can't be charging outrageous fares," he said.
Nestor Mouapi, a limo driver for three years, said he disliked hustling for passengers because he doesn't know the zone fare system and because passengers grow testy with him.
"My limo," he said, pointing at his Mercedes, "costs a lot more than a taxi cab."
Several out-of-town visitors said they did not understand why the drivers are unhappy with a fare system that is standard in other cities.
Leon Swain, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, said he has met with hundreds of drivers in recent weeks, "and they understand it's time for a change." He added that he is willing to meet with the coalition.
"The bottom line is this: The citizens of the District of Columbia have asked the mayor and the D.C. Taxicab Commission to provide them with a transparent fare system, a system that is universally understood and universally accepted," Swain said yesterday.
Striking drivers, however, are convinced that the switch will wreck their livelihoods. They say they were dealt an additional blow when Fenty recently decreased the proposed drop rate, the amount that registers on the meter when a passenger enters a cab, from $4 to $3. Under zones, the minimum fare was $6.50.
They also are looking to the D.C. Council for help. On Jan. 18, council members Phil Mendelson and Marion Barry introduced legislation to establish a zone-meter system that would preserve the zones but use the Global Positioning System to calculate the fares. The bill is in committee.
But one driver, who was not striking, said he did not see the point.
"I don't particularly want the meters, but I believe meters are inevitable," said Adrian D. Brock, a driver for more than 20 years. "And if they are, there's not very much we can do. Fenty's mind is set."
Staff writer Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.