Correction to This Article
Robert McCartney's column in the Jan. 10 Metro section described D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's efforts to reform the city's taxi system as emblematic of how the mayor does business. The headline on the version of the column that appeared in the early Sunday edition incorrectly referred to the "tax system" instead of the "taxi system."

Taxi system overhaul says a lot about Fenty

The switch to metered taxi fares brought the District into line with virtually every other major U.S. city.
The switch to metered taxi fares brought the District into line with virtually every other major U.S. city. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Robert McCartney
Sunday, January 10, 2010

As Mayor Adrian M. Fenty prepares to seek reelection this year, a useful way to evaluate his impact on the District -- both good and bad -- is to look at the city's taxicabs.

Twenty months ago, Fenty (D) rammed through a long-overdue change by scrapping the cryptic fare zone system and introducing meters that charged passengers according to distance traveled.

The switch brought the District into line with virtually every other major U.S. city and is one of the mayor's most clear-cut accomplishments as he campaigns for a second term.

But the progress has come at considerable cost for many longtime taxi drivers, who say they've suffered sharp drops in their income under the new system. That's partly because the new fares are low, compared with those in other cities, and partly because of increased competition from rising numbers of cabs, many of them illegal.

The city also has failed to honor a string of promises to drivers to address their concerns. The D.C. Taxicab Commission voted in April to do a formal study of fares and to raise the per-mile charge by Sept. 15. It has done neither and hasn't even met since May.

In testimony at a D.C. Council hearing Thursday, a commission member conceded that the body also has not implemented a law that took effect in October removing a $19 ceiling on rides that originate and end in the District. The change would affect only a fraction of rides, for which it would typically yield $2 to $5 extra, according to drivers associations, but it would eliminate an irritant.

"If the law is passed, it ought to be followed," commission member Scott Kubly said. The following day, however, the mayor's office said it didn't have to change anything because the council never had authority to lift the cap.

In many ways, Fenty's taxi reforms are emblematic of how the mayor does business generally. As in his education reform, he has pushed aggressively for change against resistance from well-established interest groups, especially in the African American working-class community. In October's controversial schools layoffs, teachers unions complained that a large number of those who suffered were older black teachers; now a similar complaint is heard from older black taxi drivers. Fenty also has steamrolled the D.C. Council on taxis, much as he ignored its wishes on how to overcome the school budget gap.

Fenty's taxi policies are seen as working on behalf of the affluent -- in this case, the tourism industry and business people, especially downtown, who use cabs most regularly. That fuels the view in less prosperous parts of the city that his administration has neglected them.

Drivers say the impact of the meters has been particularly hard on their older colleagues, many of them black, for whom the taxi industry has long been a source of reliable income.

"This was a 95 percent minority-based industry of free entrepreneurship. You're taking that industry and breaking it," Nathan Price, chairman of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, said after testifying at the hearing.

Politicians opposed to Fenty are using the taxi issue to stir up populist resentment. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) repeatedly drew applause from disgruntled drivers at the hearing when he denounced the Fenty administration for disrespecting them.

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