Responding to the grumblings of cab riders, the Public Service Commission yesterday ordered its staff to hand out 68 additional Baltimore taxicab permits, a move that could expand the city's taxi fleet for the first time in decades.
At the same time, the commission issued a separate order approving a 19 percent increase in taxicab fares negotiated in recent months among the industry, regulators and consumers, led by a group representing the blind.
The fare increase, which takes effect tomorrow, will raise the cost of a five-mile cab ride with two minutes of waiting time from $5.70 to $6.80. In granting the increase, the commission ordered the industry to come up with a proposal within 90 days for improving radio-call service.
The city's taxicab industry, which supported the compromise increase, spent four years fighting the PSC staff proposal to reissue the 68 permits, abandoned by their owners or revoked by the PSC over the years and never reissued.
Cab owners argued that the city's falling population could not currently support the 1,083 cabs with active permits, much less the full 1,151 taxis authorized in 1946.
But the PSC dismissed that argument, saying the industry's estimate of the demand for cab service was "pessimistic."
"By reissuing these permits, we will improve the chances that an individual will be able to successfully hail a taxicab on a rainy day, snowy evening or during a major downtown convention," the commission order said. "We also [will] improve the chance that an elderly pensioner, handicapped or blind individual, or a car-less city resident will be able to obtain prompt taxicab service by means of a telephone call from home or place of business."
Frank B. Fulton Jr., a spokesman for the PSC, said the 68 permits would be awarded from a list of eligible names through a lottery to be held during the next several months. The lottery list, the order said, will be open to anyone currently holding an active taxicab permit or to any licensed taxi driver with six months' experience in Baltimore.
Now, one of the city's 1,083 active cab permits is worth about $13,000 on the open market, although the PSC renews them free of charge each year. But the 68 reissued permits could not be bought, sold or traded, the order said, and must be used within six months or they will be revoked.
Mark J. Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation Inc., the city's largest taxicab firm, said the PSC's permit order could hurt consumers and that the major cab companies would meet soon to decide whether to appeal it.
"A lot of people mistakenly believe that putting more cabs on the street means better service," he said. "It can mean just the opposite." He said Washington, where anyone who wants to drive a taxi can, has "the worst taxicab service in the nation."
Higher fares alone will not help ease the cab shortage, he said. Many of the 1,083 cabs with active permits sit idle, he said, because low fares have made it hard to recruit drivers. Drivers generally pay the cab owner a daily rent of about $50 and their own expenses and keep anything left over. But Robin Miller, a cab driver and free lance writer, said drivers who now rent "are going to absolutely welcome" the chance to be awarded one of the 68 new permits.
"Becoming an owner for a driver is like getting a $250-a-week raise," he said. "Distributing permits to drivers is the long-run solution to the shortage of taxicabs on the street in Baltimore."
Mr. Fulton said the PSC's rate increase order directed the taxicab industry to come back in July and submit a plan to improve radio-call service for PSC approval. Details of that plan are now being negotiated between the industry and the city-based National Federation of the Blind.
Mr. Joseph said the plan will probably consist of a 75-cent charge to customers if a cab shows up within 15 minutes of the time it was scheduled to arrive. That charge would be in addition to the current 25-cent radio call fee.
James R. Gashel, director of governmental affairs for the blind federation, said riders should pay a $1 service fee for cabs that show up on time and no fee at all -- not even the current quarter -- for those that are late. He also said that taxicab companies should reimburse drivers for revenue lost from late calls if the company dispatcher relayed the call late. Industry critics say cab companies have little incentive to spend the money needed to hire enough dispatchers to handle radio calls.