For the first time since Congress banned the devices in 1933, there are meters in District taxicabs, ticking away the miles and minutes in, glowing red digital numbers.
It's an experiment, something the city decided to try in about two dozen District taxis after trying and failing for years to replace D.C.'s Depression-era zone system with the meters common in almost every other U.S. city.
"I wasn't so sure, but personally, I like the meter. It works for me," said Frank Johnson, one of the drivers with a meter, as he watched the fare click higher and higher on a trip from Reagan National Airport to Northwest Washington. "I'm going to make more money at rush hour. I'm going to make more money on distance."
The meters' fee structure is giving drivers ideas about looking for longer hauls if the D.C. Taxicab Commission uses the data from the eight-month study, which began this month, to vote for the meters. Longer trips would be more profitable for drivers, and that could reduce their desire to take short downtown jobs, for example. Alternatively, meters could make trips to far Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods more lucrative to cabbies.
Johnson, like all the drivers with meters, charges passengers the standard zone fares during the test period. "I'd be making $3 to $5 more at rush hour on the meter compared to the zone," Johnson said.
The zone system means that just about any trip within the downtown area, even a couple of blocks from office to lunch or a meeting, costs the flat rate, which is $7 with the recent gasoline surcharge. And a short hop that happens to cross two zones can turn a taxi ride into a double-digit expense.
That dynamic is flipped on a meter, and those short trips will likely stay in the $5 range, according to the proposed fee structure: a $2.50 pickup charge and 25 cents for each additional sixth of a mile.
One 15-year veteran taxi driver, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to upset his cab company, said he was angry the commission is proposing meters to thwart overcharging. "If I really want to cheat you," he said, "I can drive all over the city and run up the meter. I can't do that with zones now."
The feeling of being cheated is one of the main reasons the commission is looking into meters, said Inder Raj Pahwa, a taxi commissioner and former driver. He said Congress is flooded with complaints from constituents who believed they were overcharged by a taxi on their visit to the District.
Another commission member, Horace Kreitzman, said tourists aren't alone. "Nobody can understand the zone system, even people who use taxicabs a lot often get different charges for the same trip. Meters would clarify the rate structure and passengers would have a printed receipt," he said.
For Causton Toney, acting chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, "it's a matter of fairness. . . . Meters are a fair way of compensating the driver for distance and time."
Commission member Sandra Seegars has voted against the meter proposals year after year because she believes meters will bring in less income for drivers, make crosstown travel for residents cost-prohibitive and primarily benefit businesspeople and tourists who take short rides in the central business district.
She recently took a short ride in a metered taxi in Southeast that crossed two zones and cost her about $9. But the meter read $3.50. "For me, the passenger, this is great. If I need to make a short trip -- groceries, the doctor -- it works. But if we want to take me across a bridge at rush hour, with a meter, a lot of people aren't going to be able to afford it."