Long may you wave: Permits for more city cabs stalled

August 28, 1991|By Kim Clark

For years, the best Scott Warehime has been able to do when guests at the Tremont Hotel ask him to call them a cab has been to smile and say: "OK, you're a cab."

The desk agent says dispatchers often wait dozens of rings before answering his calls, and then cars can take 15 minutes to swing by the downtown hotel.

"We need more cabs," he said.

But Baltimore won't be getting any more for at least another 90 days.

State regulators' proposal to issue 69 more permits to raise the number of licensed cabs on city streets to 1,151 has been stayed by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge.

Acting on charges by city taxi owners that Baltimore doesn't need any more cabs and that the state's distribution plan was unfair, Judge John Carroll Byrnes told the Maryland Public Service Commission on Friday to cancel the taxi permit lottery originally scheduled for tomorrow.

The PSC, which regulates taxicabs in many Maryland cities, had planned to pick the names of 69 taxi drivers out of the more than 800 who had applied.

The winners would have gotten a free permit to go into business for themselves by owning and operating a taxicab.

Though they could not sell the permits, the drivers would have gotten a bargain. The permits sell for about $15,000 on the open market.

In granting the owners a temporary stay and a full court hearing, Judge Byrnes made sure the courts will decide a question that has long been burning among taxi drivers and riders: Does the city need more taxicabs?

Lawyers involved in the case said yesterday that they hope to get a decision by the end of November.

Though many Baltimoreans can tell horror stories of hearing dispatchers refuse to send taxis or drivers ignoring their waves, even consumer advocates are not sure whether the plan to reissue 69 long-lapsed permits will ensure prompter service.

In their brief filed by lawyer Edward Shea, an association of the city's biggest taxicab companies argued that there isn't enough business for their drivers now. The PSC's plan to issue non-salable permits to drivers would just take employees and profits away from the current owners without improving customer service, the owners said.

Taxi driver jobs are going begging these days, said Dwight Kines of the Royal Cab Association.

Tom Potts, who has been a driver for 18 years, said business has been so bad this summer that sometimes drivers don't even make their daily rent on the taxicab, and that's why no one is applying for drivers' jobs.

Nevertheless, Mr. Potts said he was one of the more than 800 applicants for the state's taxi permit lottery.

"It would improve service," he said. Though he works hard now, he said, "You work harder if you work for yourself."

While mistrusting the big companies' motives for fighting the lottery, some independent cabdrivers agreed that the state's plan to give away non-salable permits hurts the value of the permits they bought.

Willy Gilliard, a longtime city cabdriver and owner, said that he wouldn't mind if the state auctioned off the permits, so that the value of his medallion wouldn't be devalued. He charged that the big cab companies are opposing the plan "because they want to keep a stranglehold over the business" and don't want the competition.

Mr. Gilliard said that while drivers, who rent cars and permits from companies such as Yellow Transportation for about $90 a day, usually only earn $200 to $300 a week, owners can earn twice that.

But other cabdrivers interviewed yesterday said that while business this summer has been terrible, they'd like the state to issue more permits.

The state's plan gives cash-poor drivers a chance, they say.

State regulators said yesterday that while it was true the city's population had declined, and that taxi companies were having trouble finding all the drivers they needed, they'd fight the stay.

The lottery is just one of three moves that the regulators have taken to improve city taxicab service recently.

In May, the PSC raised city cab rates by 19 percent to improve drivers' incentives.

PSC lawyer Bryan Moorhouse said the commission is also considering plans to increase the surcharge for phone orders so that cabs are more likely to come when called.

Customers like Mr. Warehime also believe that more taxis would mean faster and, perhaps, more pleasant service.

Mr. Warehime said that sometimes, guests at the East Pleasant Street hotel get so sick of waiting for a called cab that they hail a passing hack or take off on foot.

Then, when the called cab finally arrives, Mr. Warehime said, he gets dressed down by angry drivers who feel they have wasted their time.

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