Owners of Montgomery County's four taxi fleets are pushing for increased driver education and an improved plan to provide cab rides for elderly and disabled riders as solutions to the complaints against late or no-show taxi drivers.
But a group of community advocates told a County Council committee at a hearing last week that the best solution is to spur competition by nearly doubling the number of taxis available and to impose strict performance and accountability measures on taxi fleets.
Action in Montgomery (AIM), which sparked a reform push more than two years ago, delivered 2,000 signatures collected in just under two weeks from people outraged enough over late or no-show cabs that they want changes.
A handful of drivers, who own their taxi medallions and could lose much of their investment if the county floods the market with new licenses, also attended the hearing to push for a centralized dispatch system as a solution to late arrivals or missed calls.
As each group presented its case, those in opposing camps sat in the audience, arms crossed, shaking their heads. There was little agreement. Not on the nature of the problem -- and taxi company owners disputed there was one. And certainly not on what to do about it.
"Some say this is a perceived problem; I say it's a real problem," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring).
"We have had a lot of personal experience with these things," Committee Chairwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said of no-show cabs, after fleet owners defended their service.
Floreen wants to act soon. With legislation proposed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, she hopes the committee will produce a recommendation next week for the council to consider and vote on in the fall.
"The core issue here is consumer satisfaction," she said during the four-hour meeting last week.
To help sort through the competing interests and differing points of view, the council has hired Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and expert in the taxi industry who studied the Montgomery County taxi system several years ago.
His work could cost the county up to $25,000. In 2002, he prepared a report that found far more complaints and customer dissatisfaction here than in other suburbs of similar size.
At the meeting, Schaller promised to give council members "Taxi 101."
The bottom line, he said, is that Montgomery has a worse record for delayed service than the Federal Aviation Administration reports for airlines. The rate of complaints for late taxis was up to "26 times higher in Montgomery County for late/no cabs than for late/cancelled flights," Schaller wrote in a memo presented to the council.
Barwood Inc., which controls three-fourths of the county's cab market, has a state-of-the art dispatching system, with a satellite tracking each cab through a global positioning system, and computer automation. But it isn't working, Schaller found. Barely one-third of the calls for immediate service were dispatched within two minutes, he said. Typically, as many as 85 percent of calls are dispatched within two minutes in such a system, he said.
"These are fundamentally management issues," he wrote. The system may be state of the art, he said, but good service is "in the execution, not in the system technology." And with performance and the reputation for reliability so low in the county, Schaller said, the unregulated limousine and black sedan business has taken root and established a foothold.
Right now, Schaller said, the county does not need any more taxi medallions. Duncan proposed doubling the number to 900 over the next few years.
There is indeed a driver shortage, Schaller agreed with fleet owners. But he added that the primary reason is drivers earn on average $20,000 a year, little more than poverty wages for some with large families. Many drivers, who pay $100 a day to rent a cab, "pick and choose" which calls to take. If it's a short ride, some may initially accept it, then ditch it when a more lucrative airport run turns up -- and never report to the company.
"The goal is for drivers to pick up the calls they're dispatched and to make good money doing so," Schaller said.
He encouraged a driver education program, in addition to performance and accountability standards. "If drivers can make good money taking what the company offers, they'll do better doing that than trying to pick and choose," he said.
The value of taxi medallions is at the heart of the debate. Initially offered through the county for $2,500, the number of medallions, or "passenger vehicle licenses," has been capped at 580 since 1988. With scarce supply and growing demand, the value of a medallion traded privately can run as high as $60,000.
Lee Barnes, Barwood's owner, said the bank considers the medallions he controls assets that he can borrow against.
Duncan's plan, both fleet and individual owners say, would "flood the market," and reduce the value of medallions, without necessarily improving service.
But AIM advocates, who gathered hundreds of stories of people waiting for hours for cabs, sometimes missing airline flights or doctor appointments, said boosting the number of medallions is the only way to spur competition and make existing companies, such as Barwood, more responsive.
"Competition," Schaller said, finding at last another point of agreement, "is the most effective means to an end."