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Climbing into a taxicab in Washington, D.C. doesn't guarantee a pleasant ride. The cab may be old or dirty, the cabbie may not know his way around, and the rider better carry cash. City leaders say the current state of the taxi industry is embarrassing to a capital city visited by 20 million tourists annually.
The District's 6,500 taxicabs would undergo a major makeover under a plan awaiting the approval of the D.C. council. A proposed $.50 surcharge on all rides would pay for a slew of improvements, including smart meters with GPS that monitor routes and calculate fares, credit card payment machines, driver and passenger safety buttons that would call the police, and driver ID panels and Internet screen displays in the back seats.
D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh sponsored the legislation, and asked residents to respond to a survey about the taxicab industry. The results showed residents support implementing the proposed improvements. Only 18 percent said the current state of service is good, while 42 percent said it is fair and 36 percent rated it poor. Compared to other cities, D.C. taxis were rated worse by 69 percent of survey respondents.
"I have taken the cab service here in Washington when I was working," says Gerry Horn of Port Washington, N.Y., as he waited for a ride outside Union Station. "I worked a lot down here even though I am from New York, and I was not all that excited about it."
D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton explains that all the changes would be mandatory, despite the loud complaints of some cabbies, and would be funded exclusively by the $.50 surcharge. A 'Consumer Service Fund' would be created solely for collecting the surcharge and allocating monies to enhance the taxicab industry.
"What [the cab drivers] don't understand is... why are we regulating them? I had to inform them that as far I knew, there is no commercial operation in the District of Columbia that isn't regulated by the government," says Linton, who says he expects the D.C. Council to approve Cheh's legislation this summer. "These are people who are driving on the streets owned by the citizens of the District of Columbia."
Raising the cost to raise the quality
Linton expects the taxi overhaul to take about two years. Based on the estimate of 25 million taxi passengers per year, the surcharge would place millions of dollars at this and the city council's disposal. Some cabbies simply don't trust the city to make the right decisions.
"Everybody is in our business and not taking care of their business," says Willie Coleman, who has been driving a cab for 36 years in the District. He says he opposes mandatory credit card payment machines even though a majority of passengers want them.
"I really don't appreciate it because it will cost me more money to stay in business," Coleman says, referring to credit card processing fees. Actually, the Consumer Service Fund would cover the cost of those fees - and just about everything else associated with the proposed improvements.
"That fund by law could not have any funds expended unless it was for the taxicab industry," Linton says.
D.C. residents also support painting all the cabs the same color, according to Cheh's survey, but Linton says creating a uniform color scheme would not be high on his agenda.
"From my stand point as a regulator, it is not a big ticket item," Linton says. "I don't oppose it, but I am not going to expend energy when we have more important things to accomplish."
If you ask cabbies what the city can do for them, they will tell you raise fares. A fare increase is coming. As early as April 20, the per-mile charge will rise from $1.50 to $2.16. Luggage surcharges and the extra passenger surcharge of $1.50 will end.
Before they see most of the service enhancements, passengers will feel the changes in their wallets. The proposed $.50 surcharge and pending fare increase would increase the fare of a typical 2-mile ride in light traffic from $7 to nearly $9.
Triple-A Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend says the higher fees will be worth it when you consider the current state of the taxicab industry.
"It's almost like you have entered a time warp when you enter a cab in the District of Columbia," says Townsend. "It's almost like looking at the vehicle fleet in Cuba, dilapidated, old, and antiquated. For so long, the cab drivers have been so poorly treated they have not had the resources or the wherewithal to upgrade their cabs unless they work for a big taxi service."
Linton said over the next two years further measures will be proposed to modernize the fleet, including increasing the number of hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles.
"So when people come here for conferences, conventions, and business meetings, they find this a very convenient and rewarding method for moving around this city," he says. "That is why it is so important for this city, as the capital of the nation, to have a really world class taxi system."
No matter what city officials say, some cabbies won't believe them until they see real results. Robert Scruggs, 81, who has been driving a cab in the District since the Eisenhower administration, says he doubts the new fund won't be raided to pay for other things.
"People have a thing of putting their hands in the cookie jar, especially here," he says.
[Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "Tijuana Taxi" by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass on Definitive Hits]
Photos: D.C. Taxicabs