ONCE AGAIN, the new D.C. Taxicab Commission has assembled a panel of its $150-a-meeting members to wrestle ineffectively with its pressing duties. This time, breaking with precedent, the members actually reached a conclusion. The trouble is it's a bum one. The members approved a fare increase in a form -- a surcharge of 40 cents more a trip no matter what the distance -- that will be unfair to cabbies as well as passengers. It means peanuts for the drivers and is a disservice to passengers because it gives the drivers a new disincentive to pick up riders for the longer trips. The only saving grace is that it's an interim proposal, and representatives of almost every group in town except the commission are sure to try to kill it and push for something else.

It isn't that the commissioners had no clues to what the riding public needs and wants. On the contrary, their staff prepared a proposal calling for a 16 percent increase per cab zone. Whether the percentage is high enough or not can be argued, but the formula is sensible. Commission Chairman Arrington Dixon, who has struggled to instill a sense of responsible duty in certain members, noted that a surcharge will encourage drivers to operate downtown where they can do quick trips, rather than to go to more distant sections of town or to the suburbs; several cab drivers attending the meeting agreed. It is true that cab drivers are not supposed to pick and choose like that. But even with another handful of inspectors and the effective new checkpoint/arrest operations conducted by various police departments, enforcement will be difficult. The authorities already have enough of a burden.

Thanks to those authorities, many of the worst scofflaws -- the unlicensed, unprincipled drivers in the uninspected jalopies who pass up some people and misdeliver others -- are now off the streets. That leaves a far more dedicated, if temporarily smaller, corps of drivers who haven't had a fare increase since May 1985. They deserve a fair break, just as their passengers deserve good service from them. The commission has failed on both counts.