Cab Switch To Meters Is Tied Up

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thousands of District taxi drivers have not yet installed the fare meters required by May 1 under a new law, and the Fenty administration says drivers face a $1,000 fine every time they're caught picking up rides without meters after the deadline.

Some installers say they doubt the expected demand can be met in time, setting up a showdown that could lead to thousands of cabs being sidelined. The drivers, who filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of replacing zones with meters, have avoided installing the devices until a judge rules on their suit, but the administration says the law requires them to abide by the May 1 start date.

Nathan Price, a cabdriver who is chairman of the coalition that brought the suit, said yesterday that it is "impossible" for meters to be put in the city's almost 7,000 cabs in such a short time. The District's insistence on the May 1 start, he said, is "a way of intimidation."

"To me, it's almost crazy to assume this is the way things are going to happen, because you don't know" until the suit is resolved, Price said.

Confusion marks every step of the attempt at the historic change. Most cabdrivers have balked at paying the estimated $350 for a meter until the court challenge is decided. Without a guarantee of paying customers, the three approved meter manufacturers are holding up shipping thousands of meters to the District. Some meter installers became licensed to do business only yesterday afternoon.

Everyone has been awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed last month by the D.C. Coalition of Cabdrivers, Companies and Associations, a group opposed to the change. The coalition argued in a March 27 hearing that Fenty (D) had exceeded his authority by ordering the switch from zones to meters.

Absent a ruling from D.C. Superior Court Judge Brook Hedge, city officials say they are moving ahead as planned.

"The May 1 deadline still stands," D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon J. Swain Jr. said yesterday. On that date, a cab without a meter "will not be considered a D.C. taxicab," he said. Drivers are subject to a $1,000 fine every time they drive an unmetered cab.

Swain said there are just six licensed installers, at least some of which are cab companies, and they will have to operate "24 hours a day, seven days a week" to meet the deadline.

Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles said yesterday that the District "will not be unreasonable" if the judge's ruling comes "late in the game." He declined to speculate on extending the deadline.

"We have to move ahead because that's the law, so to speak," Nickles said. "What the judge says and when she says it is very important to us. Let's just see what happens."

A decision could come as early as Monday, a source familiar with the case said.

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