This is how bad taxicab service has gotten in this city:
Last month, James Gashel of the National Federation of the Blind, was scheduled to meet with members of the Taxicab Owners Association to talk about the problem of poor cab service.
So, the president of one of the city's largest cab companies sent one of his taxis to pick Gashel up.
"The cab was 15 minutes late," said Gashel with a sad chuckle. "In fact, as we were heading out, we got a radio call from the dispatcher because [the president] wanted to know what was keeping us."
Fifteen minutes isn't bad, of course, but the moral is this: the president of the company couldn't provide good service even to prove a point about good service to people who were complaining about the lack of good service.
"It isn't just blind people," Gashel said yesterday. Gashel, director of NFB's governmental affairs, is himself blind.
"You just can't get a cab in this city, it's as simple as that. You can't flag one down because there aren't cabs roaming the streets. You can't call one because, when you do, they never come. Almost everybody who lives in Baltimore city knows about the problem. Almost everybody has given up trying to do something about it."
"But for the blind," he continued, "the problem gets accentuated because taxis are our primary mode of transportation. It's not just a nuisance. Sometimes it's an embarrassment. Sometimes you lose opportunities. More often than not, you feel trapped. You feel like a prisoner."
Last week, then, about 10 people, most of them associated with the National Federation of the Blind, shared their experiences with a Public Service Commission hearing examiner.
And their tales of poor service proved so horrific that Examiner O. Ray Bourland, 3rd was moved to deny a proposed 19 percent fare increase that the People's Counsel, the PSC staff and the owner's association had already agreed upon.
Bourland ruled that, while the proposed fare boost was "reasonable in the abstract," problems with service were so great that it would be "improper" to raise fares without a commitment from cab companies to improve.
"Thank God," said Gashel, "that somebody in government finally had the courage to stand up and say that you can't keep raising prices without raising service!"
But now the scene shifts to the cab stand outside Pennsylvania Station yesterday afternoon.
"Man, when I picked up that paper and saw that decision, I just couldn't believe it," said Edward Jones, of the Yellow Cab Co. Jones said he has found himself working more hours to gross the same amount of money this past year, yet still taking less home after expenses.
"We can't get any respect!" exclaimed Herb Watson, another Yellow Cab driver. "We're the last thing on the totem pole and the thing that gets me is that people really, really think we're making money. We're lucky if we put bread on the table."
Both men said they pay about $15 to $17 a day for gas. Jones, who owns his own cab, says he pays $94.95 a week for insurance and association dues. Watson, who rents from the company, pays from $85 to $90 a day for the rental, insurance, fees and gas.
"There have been days," said Watson, "when I've gone home with $50 in my pocket and counted myself lucky."
"The hearing examiner actually set back the opportunity to improve service," said Mark Joseph, president of the Yellow Cab Co.
"Part of the problem, in fact, the main problem with service is that we don't have enough drivers. We can't retain new drivers because they can't make any money at it and the experienced drivers are stretched just about as far as they can go.
"I'm absolutely convinced," Joseph continued with passion, "that higher fares would result in more drivers and that that would result in better service."
So, now you see why people in government rarely act with the kind of courage that O. Ray Bourland 3rd showed last week. Things are too complex, officials come to feel. You try to help one group of little people and another group of little people gets hurt. Easier just to go with the flow.
But, if Bourland's decision woke up everybody -- made the owners and their drivers just a teensy bit more conscious of the need to return value for value -- then Bourland would not have acted in vain. This is true, even if the full commission acts as expected and overturns him next month.