More than half of Washington's 7,000 taxi drivers stayed off the streets yesterday in a one-day protest strike that left businessmen, tourists and other travelers temporarily marooned throughout the city.
Adding yet another woe to the already gasoline-hungry Washington area, the strike disrupted businesses, delayed meetings and left bewildered, suitcase-toting travelers stranded at hack stands from Union Station to the Shoreham-Americana Hotel.
The cab drivers, protesting as inadequate a 10-cent-per-ride increase that went into effect Sunday, picketed major downtown hotels, periodically jeering and cursing the few working cabbies who showed up at the hack stands. The taxi of an elderly cabbie at Union Station was splattered with an egg.
Many drivers honored the picket lines but did not appear to be participants in the protest. Some appeared concerned about harassment by fellow drivers, and at least one said he stayed off the street because he feared reprisals.
A motorcade of protesting taxis wound through the city but, according to police, never numbered more than 55 vehicle at a time. During the afternoon rush hour, small groups of cabs formed loose, moving blockades on the Memorial and 14th Street bridges, briefly slowing traffic into suburban Virginia. There were similar slow-downs on Connecticut Avenue NW near Dupont Circle and on the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) Birdge, both quickly broken up by D.C. police.
Meanwhile, Washington area commuters and other motorists went through another day of government imposed odd-even gasoline sales. Service stations reported lines generally shorter than they were last week before the sales plan went into effect.
In some cases, the wait in the lines was reduced from two hours to one hour. In others, the lines disappeared shortly after the service stations opened in the morning. Many stations were able to extend their hours, selling gas until they had pumped their daily allowance.
But for many people, including tourists, residents and businessmen, the biggest problem in the city wasn't a shortage of gasoline, but a problem of too few working cabs.
Cab drivers upset by a 10-cent fare increase per trip granted by the Public Service Commission, struck yesterday for a 10.5 percent increase in fares across the board.
"Gasoline costs have risen, cab costs have risen, and the Public Service Commission only granted us a 10-cent-per-person increase," said Jack Dembo, one of the leaders of yesterday's protest. "That's an insult."
The new rate increased the cost of a one-zone ride from $1.20 to $1.30 and a ride crossing all eight city zones from $5.40 to $5.50. Cab drivers said the increase doesn't cover their operating costs, which they assert have sky-rocked through inflation well above the 3.8 percent average the 10-cent increase represents.
PSC Chairperson Elizabeth Patterson said the commission would consider motions to reconsider and clarify the increase later this summer. A spokesperson for D. C. Mayor Marion Barry said the mayor filed a motion with the commission to reconsider and clarify last Friday.
"I am solidly behind the objectives of the cab drivers in trying to obtain a decent interim increase," said Barry, through spokesperson Florence Tate. "I appreciate the hardship that the woefully inadequate fares in the District are causing for the drivers.
"While I am not advocating the strike, I can certainly understand the level of frustration that they have reached," the mayor said. "I hope the commission will look at the situation more realistically and grant them adequate relief."
Throughout the city yesterday, frustrated commuters flocked to Metro, rode buses and thumbed rides to reach their destinations. Area companies with radio-dispatched cabs also felt the impact of the strike.
"We're having a bad time, we're in bad shape," said Red Winegar, supervisor and dispatcher at Diamond Cab Co., one of the largest here.
"There are people out there waiting for cabs," Winegar said, "and few people working, even with a 50-cent surcharge," the additional fee charged passengers who call in for a cab. "I would say only about half our drivers are working."
Strike leaders estimated that from 85 to 95 percent of cab drivers were striking yesterday. Cab company estimates were considerably lower, closer to 50 percent. One driver said, "I was not on the street because I was afraid of possible retaliation. I was afraid that the strikers would create some violence."
At Union Station and at most of the city's larger hotels, small groups of sign-carrying pickets harassed other drivers as they picked up or discharged passengers.
At the Holiday Inn at 1900 Connecticut Ave. NW, the bell captain, Joe Fearon, flagged his arms and blew his whistle frantically for cabs for hotel guests.
"It's been a pain in the neck," said Fearon. "I cannot get any taxis. From 7 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., I have only gotten two taxis. No one would come here. I sent eight people to Metro this morning."
Meanwhile, the threat of a cab strike has been raised in Montgomery County where drivers at a hearing last night demanded an immediate 50-cent fare surcharge to offset rising gasoline and maintenance costs.
County transportation director Gerald Cichy heard testimony last night on the proposed increase, which would be in the first in the county in more than two years. More than 40 drivers attended the hearing.
Cichy and the county taxicab service advisory committee were expected to make recommendations by noon today to County Executive Charles Gilchrist. County cab fares are 70 cents for the first 2/7-mile and 10 cents for each additional seventh.
While the area appeared to be settling down with the new odd-even sales plan, Maryland authorities said they have received increasing complaints from motorists in the last 10 days about abuses at gas stations. Complaints - nearly 50 so far - include excessive prices for fuel and customer favoritism.
The complaints prompted Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs and Comptroller Louis Goldstein to send out a seven-page letter last Friday to the state's service station dealers, urging compliance with local and federal laws on gasoline sales.
An accompanying guide listed various violations, such as requiring a "tie-in" purchase (motor oil, tune-up or other service) as a requisite for getting gasoline, a violation of Maryland antiturst laws.
The letter also noted that under federal regulations, a dealer may not limit sales to "regular" or favored customers unless that was his practice at this same time last year.
In Virginia, James E. Heizer, the head of the state gasoline retailers association, warned yesterday that shrinking profit margins may cause some of the state's 2,900 independent service station owners to close soon and "go fishing for a few days." CAPTION: Picture 1, At Union Station, an arriving passenger found a sign explaining the cab driver protest. He took the subway. By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post; Picture 2, The taxi stand at the Washington Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue NW is usually filled with waiting cabs, but yesterday the taxi drivers stayed away. By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post