Deploring the service provided by city taxis, especially for disabled customers, a Public Service Commission hearing examiner has turned down a 19 percent rate increase request by cab companies.
In an unusual decision issued Thursday, Examiner O. Ray Bourland III rejected a proposed rate increase that had been agreed to by the PSC staff, the people's counsel and the cab companies.
The financial earnings of the cab companies, after the emergency 10 percent rate increase granted for higher fuel costs in November, are "within the lower zone of reasonableness," Mr. Bourland said.
"I have also found that service is poor enough to warrant this action," he said, noting the unreliability of call service for taxis. Raising rates without a taxi company commitment to improved service would not be proper, Mr. Bourland said.
The PSC official said that it is easy to get a cab at major stands and the train station, but difficult to get a cab with a phone call. The difficulty of hailing a cab on the street is unclear, he added.
Mr. Bourland suggested raising the phone call service surcharge from the current 25 cents to $1 or $2, providing economic incentives to attract cabbies to the under-served portion of the market.
The rate proposal rejected by Mr. Bourland would have raised the cost of an average five-mile cab ride to $6.80 from the current $5.70 rate.
Mark L. Joseph, president of the Yellow Transportation Co., said yesterday that he would appeal the examiner's decision to the five-member Public Service Commission, which he expects to approve the requested fare increases. He reiterated cab operator arguments that higher rates are needed to attract more drivers to provide the service demanded by customers.
People's Counsel John M. Glynn, whose office represents consumers before the PSC, said he was surprised by the decision because the case appeared to center purely on cab economics.
"I give him credit, he took an aggressive posture toward improving service," said Mr. Glynn, even though cab reliability has never been guaranteed. "I think the commission should have the authority to cut rates for poor service, but the PSC has not been willing to do this."
Mr. Bourland was clearly influenced by the testimony of 10 cab customers, nearly all of them blind, who told horror stories of unreliable taxis and an unresponsive cab radio dispatch system.
One blind woman told of waiting more than five hours at a shopping mall for a cab to pick her up, despite her repeated calls and promises from the dispatcher. She finally had to pay a mall employee to drive her home that night. "Waits of an hour, or two hours or even more, are common," Mr. Bourland said. "These delays cause many problems in their personal and professional lives."
His proposal for higher phone call service surcharges was adopted in large part from the proposal by James Gashel, who advocated a pre-registered customer program for individuals who must rely on taxis for transportation. Mr. Gashel, governmental affairs director for the National Federation of the Blind, suggested a $2 surcharge for phone customers that would be paid if the cab appeared within 15 minutes of the specified pickup time.
Many drivers have said they would welcome this kind of safe, dependable, pre-registered customer and the chance to earn the surcharge, said Mr. Gashel. Under the current system, he added, fewer than one in three taxis appear within 15 minutes of the agreed pickup time. Mr. Joseph said a higher phone surcharge would discriminate against poor customers. But Mr. Gashel said cab companies now give priority service to business "accounts" that are regular customers.
"Obviously, this is an victory in determining the relationship between service and what we pay for a taxi ride," he said.