Baltimore taxi customers would see fares rise by 19 percent under an agreement between the cab industry and state regulators unveiled at a Public Service Commission hearing yesterday.
And a PSC official directed both sides to try to agree in the next few days on a plan to improve radio call service, which one witness said is so unreliable it is "outrageous."
As part of the fare compromise, cab industry representatives said they were abandoning an earlier request for an 82 percent increase and pledged not to seek higher fares for at least 18 months.
The state PSC staff, in return, dropped a "ceiling fare" proposal that would have paved the way for price competition in the industry.
The compromise must still be approved by O. Ray Bourland III, a PSC hearing examiner who is presiding over the rate case, and the five-member commission itself. Several state officials predicted the plan would be swiftly ratified.
Mr. Bourland, at yesterday's hearing, directed the cab industry and state regulators to come up with a proposal for improving service to customers who phone to reserve taxi service.
James Gashel, director of government affairs for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, testified at the hearing that the city's phone-in cab service is among the worst he has found in the United States -- a situation that leaves him and other blind Baltimoreans feeling "trapped." He proposed a "premium service" scheme, under which customers would register with cab firms, be given a special phone number to connect them directly with dispatchers and pledge to pay a $2 premium for cabs that showed up within 15 minutes of the time promised. Now, he said, more often than not cabs do not show up at all.
"The situation we have here is outrageous," he said.
Robin Miller, a 38-year-old driver with Yellow Cab, testified that cabbies are not eager to take radio calls because city residents commonly will call four or five cab firms, then take the first taxi that shows up. Or, he said, they will call a cab and while waiting on the street hail a passing taxi. He endorsed Mr. Gashel's plan, saying it would simply "ratify 5,000 informal arrangements" that veterantaxi riders have with selected drivers, and give drivers "greater income, safety and stability."
He also suggested that the city's current 50-cent "missed call" penalty for riders who call cabs but don't use them be raised. Mr. Miller said the charge in Baltimore County is $1.60 and at least one cab firm keeps a list of callers who stand up drivers. When those customers call again, they are told they must pay the $1.60 fee to get service.
With fewer missed calls, he said, drivers would respond more reliably to radio calls.
After the hearing, Mark J. Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation Inc., said the "priority service" proposal "probably makes some sense," although he added he did not want the industry to discriminate against riders who could not afford the $2 surcharge.
A group of 85 taxi owners, who control 622 of the city's 1,083 taxi permits, filed for the 82 percent increase on Oct. 25. The owners, along with the Teamsters local representing drivers, had argued that a hefty fare rise was needed to help offset higher insurance and maintenance costs and to help overcome a chronic shortage of drivers.
A PSC official said yesterday that no taxi riders had written to the PSC to protest the cab owner's plan to raise fares. None spoke at yesterday's 10 a.m. hearing, although the PSC held another hearing at 7 p.m. (A hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. today was canceled.)
Allen M. Freifeld, chief staff counsel for the PSC, said the commission staff opposed the owners' proposal and came up with its own: a 19 percent fare increase similar to the compromise announced yesterday.
That raise originally was part of a "ceiling fare" scheme, under which a cab owner could charge less, but not more, than the set rate. Since regulation began in the 1930s, all taxis have been required to use the state-established rate structure.
The "ceiling fare" plan was dropped, Mr. Freifeld said, as part of the compromise.
The PSC last raised taxi fares Nov. 7, when cab drivers were granted a 9 percent "emergency" increase to help offset the higher cost of gasoline following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Current fare.. ....... ....... .....Proposed new fare
for first 1/8 mile....... .... ...$1.40 for first 1/10th mile
$.10 for each additional 1/8 mile or. ..$.10 for each additional
fraction .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1/10th mile
$.10 for each 30 seconds of waiting ..$.25 per minute
$5.70 for average ride*.... ..... ....$6.80 for average ride*
* The PSC says the average taxi rider travels five miles with two minutes waiting time.