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Drivers Say Low Rates Make Meters a Burden

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

It's not the new little box on their dashboards that has many of the District's more than 6,000 cabdrivers still fuming over being forced to abandon zone-based fares. It's the rate at which those time-and-distance meters click away.

"It's good for passengers and drivers instead of the complicated zone system," said Hussein Abafogi, 44, as he worked on a passenger manifest, parked in his gleaming Lincoln Town Car cab on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The car bore the sticker that many cabs now sport: "Certified Metered Taxi Cab."

"But the mayor is not doing a reasonable price," he added. "When you compare to Maryland and Virginia, it's hurtful to us."

The decades-long fight over how D.C. cabdrivers charge passengers ended this week. Since Sunday, it has been illegal for drivers to charge under the old zone system. They risk a $1,000 fine if they don't have active meters installed.

In the first three days the law was in effect, about a dozen drivers were cited and fined.

"It's working out rather well," Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon J. Swain Jr. said after being out over the weekend with inspectors and police officers looking for noncompliant drivers. "We've done a yeoman's job of getting [the meters] installed. I was highly impressed by the number of vehicles that were legal.

"We're now in a period where the citizen and the cabdriver have to get used to each other," he said.

The city's cabbies had long resisted the move away from fares based on travel between 23 geographic zones, insisting that they would lose income and that many passengers would be discouraged from taking cabs if they did not know in advance how much a ride would cost.

In the new system, some longer trips earn drivers more money, but many trips, especially those going out of the District, bring in less than before. And rates are lower than those in some neighboring communities as well as other big cities.

Drivers have spent as much as $500 for the meters, and many said their incomes have declined 20 to 50 percent since the switch.

"Most of them are extremely angry, extremely stressed out," said Nathan Price, a cabdriver who is chairman of the D.C. Coalition of Cab Drivers, Companies and Associations, which unsuccessfully sued the District to try to stop the switch.

Many cabdrivers, though disliking the change, are getting accustomed to the meters, which measure distance traveled and time increments when stopped in traffic.

Swain said he expected that about 4,700 of the city's 5,700 cabs would have meters by week's end. Price said he expected it to be fewer than that. But both men agreed that cabs without meters would stay off the road because drivers would not want to risk fines.

Even with fewer cabs, there does not appear to be any shortage of availability. Taxis this week have been regularly lined up at hotels, and drivers said they have not noticed any significant differences.

The new system charges passengers $3 for the first sixth of a mile and 25 cents for each additional sixth of a mile. That works out to $4.25 for the first mile and $1.50 for each additional mile. A two-mile trip costs $5.75. Under the old system, a two-mile trip that crossed from one zone to another could cost $8.80.

In Montgomery County, a two-mile trip is $6.80, based on rates of an initial $4 charge with each additional quarter-mile costing 40 cents. In Fairfax County, a two-mile trip costs $5.90

In other large cities, cab rates are higher, too. In New York, for example, the initial charge is $4.50, with a two-mile ride totaling $6.50. In Philadelphia, a two-mile ride costs more than $7.

Drivers can now charge only $1.50 a mile when leaving the District instead of $1.80, making runs to Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washingon International Marshall Airport less lucrative.

The District's new rates were established with the help of George Washington University urban planners, who researched the switch to meters for the Taxicab Commission. They tried to estimate what drivers were averaging in fares and set new rates accordingly. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) signed off on the final rates.

"I think it's fair," commission member Cornelius Baker said. The old zone system that could charge nearly $9 for a two-mile ride was "just something that's not justifiable," he said.

The meter rules cap the cost of a cab ride within the District at $19, another irritant to drivers. They said that some longer rides could bring them more money with the meters and that it is unfair to limit them.

Baker said the cap was intended to help low-income city residents who rely on cab service.

But Price said the new fare rates and caps might cause some drivers to stick to business districts.

"Eventually," he said, "all your business is going to be downtown."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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