D.C. Cabbies Feel The Pinch as They Prepare for Meters

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Michael Mulugeta, father of twin 16-year-old daughters, has been a District cabbie since 1993. He was a chemist in his native Ethiopia, he said. Now, 10 to 12 hours a day, he navigates the streets of the nation's capital in his white Lincoln Continental, taxi No. 2117, hustling to stay on the plus side of some unforgiving arithmetic.

"Gross, I make about $650 or something," Mulugeta said. That's in a week. "Then you got your gas, your insurance. You got maintenance. After your expenses, probably you net about $400, $450, something like that."

Cabbie economics: math as brutal as it is simple, which helps explain the trepidation many D.C. taxi drivers feel these days as they line up at garages to have meters installed. The city's 70-year-old system of fares based on geographic zones is ending, by order of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), and no one knows for sure what the change in rates will mean for the cabdrivers' tight profit margins.

Just shelling out $400 for a meter, more than a week's take-home income for some drivers, will badly dent their budgets, cabbies said.

"Painful, very painful," said Mulugeta, 47, of Alexandria.

This was Friday afternoon outside the Ace Auto shop in the 2000 block of Fifth Street NE, a weedy, dead-end industrial strip home to several taxi garages. Like other drivers, who came and went all day, Mulugeta was there to have a meter put in his cab. As he waited for the work to be done, he stood on the cracked and patched pavement with his hands in his pockets, shrouded in dust from the asphalt plant across the road.

"Costing me money," he said more than once, meaning the downtime. It takes 45 minutes or so to install a meter and check its calibration with a test drive. But he had to wait his turn.

Abdul Hassen waited, too. And James Person. And Mehary Abe. And two men sipping coffee who said their first names are Getachew and Gebremehin. They waited with a half-dozen other drivers, their cabs crowded in line at odd angles in front of the garage, a brick blockhouse painted sky blue.

A heavy door of black iron bars that might have come from Alcatraz secures the garage's cramped office. Plywood covers the only window.

"Ace Auto Ent -- " says the rusted sign above the entrance. In the shade, flanked by a broken bicycle and a dented trash can filled with food wrappers and old car parts, Getachew and Gebremehin relaxed on an oil-stained bench seat from a van, chatting over the din of dump trucks rumbling in and out of the plant.

The two conferred for a moment in their native Amharic and seemed convinced that something bad would happen if they let their last names appear in print.

Ace Auto, garage of Jet Cab, one of five licensed meter installers in the city -- a little corner of the D.C. cabbie world.

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