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Cabbies Down to One Week to Install Meters

Cabbies wait outside Bass & Treble, a Northeast D.C. shop that is one of several licensed to install time-and-distance meters in cabs.
Cabbies wait outside Bass & Treble, a Northeast D.C. shop that is one of several licensed to install time-and-distance meters in cabs. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

With a week to go before the deadline for D.C. cabdrivers to begin using time-and-distance meters, the head of the city's Taxicab Commission said Friday that more than 3,000 cabs have been fitted with the meters and that "we're not going to have any problems meeting the mayor's mandate" to end the decades-old system of zone-based fares next Sunday.

In a city with 5,700 authorized taxis and nearly 7,000 licensed cabdrivers, the figure cited by Leon J. Swain Jr., the panel's chairman, accounts for fewer than two-thirds of the vehicles. But Swain predicted an 11th-hour rush of installations this week and added that the switch to meters could shrink the city's crowded cab industry.

"I'm extremely satisfied with the progress," Swain said, noting that in mid-April only a small fraction of cabs had been fitted with meters. At the time, the commission had licensed fewer than a half-dozen companies to install the devices. With more technicians being trained in recent weeks, the number of approved installation shops has grown to 21.

As for the hundreds of cabs still without meters, which cost $300 to $500, Swain said, "you have people who will wait until the last minute. And I think you have some people who only drive part time who figure they don't drive enough [so] they're simply not going to go through the conversion, and they'll drop out of the business."

He added: "There may be some people who are just waiting because they're hoping there'll be another extension granted. And that is not going to happen."

After years of complaints about the flat-rate zone system from riders who found it confusing and worried that they were being overcharged by dishonest drivers, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) added a provision to a D.C. appropriations bill last year that prompted Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to order the zone system scrapped.

Another reason so few cabs had meters a month ago was that most drivers were awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court that sought to overturn Fenty's order. The lawsuit failed April 21, and two courts have since declined to delay the switch to meters while a group of cabbies takes the case to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Fenty, who has extended the deadline once, from May 1 to June 1, warned last week that he will grant no more reprieves. Starting next Sunday, officials said, any cabbie caught working without a meter will be fined $1,000.

"We are busy," said Javid Iqbal, owner of Bass & Treble, an auto electronics shop that is licensed to install meters. "And as the deadline comes closer, I'm going to be even busier, I think, everybody grabbing me from every side all day to put the meters in."

A manager at the District Cab Association garage, speaking on condition of anonymity, said installers there have put meters in about 900 cabs in recent weeks. "It's slowed down a lot," he said. "We're taking them, but they're not coming in that fast lately. At first, it was a real rush. Now it's a lull. I imagine this week it'll be another rush again."

At Classic Cab Co., also a licensed installer, owner Evelyn Ruiz said "there will be no problem by June 1."

"A lot of people must have meters, because right now I have nothing to do," Ruiz said. "It was a good two weeks. But nobody comes here now."

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