BALTIMORE area taxi fares recently increased 15 percent, but cab service won't improve. You'll still have trouble finding a cab after an Orioles game. And you'll still have to wait a half-hour or so -- in good weather -- for your taxi to arrive. And there'll still be those occasions when the cab never arrives.
Why? There's a shortage of taxi drivers here because the overhead costs are prohibitive. That's a key reason for the proliferation of the unlicensed "gypsy" taxis in the poorer sections of town and limousine and sedan services in the area.
First, there's the matter of taxi permits: $13,000 in the city and $20,000 in Baltimore County. The state limits the number of permits available here to 1,200 in the city and 300 in Baltimore County. Most permits are held by cab company owners or speculators, who rent them out but do not drive cabs themselves.
But the typical taxi driver can't afford to buy a cab and a permit. Instead, he rents a taxi. In Washington, where prospective taxi drivers simply pay a negligible fee and receive a permit, the average full-time taxi rent is less than $200 a week. In Baltimore, the average full-time cab rent is more than $400 a week. Does anyone really believe a Baltimore cab is worth twice as much as a Washington cab?
So, a prospective taxi driver here has to plan to pay more than $400 per week in taxi rental, plus gas. If he were to drive a cab six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day, his typical take-home pay, after sweating behind the wheel, would be between $300 and $400 a week.
The Baltimore-style limited permit system is marvelous if you're one of the handful of rich men who hold the permits -- or one of the politicians who receives generous donations from this group -- but for the drivers and their passengers (mostly the poor and elderly), it's a disaster.
In late 1996, after almost 10 years of driving and dispatching Baltimore cabs, I borrowed $15,000 from a friend, bought a used limousine and went into business for myself. I'm not getting rich, but I'm much better off financially.
I'm not alone. Many other former taxi drivers have followed suit, lTC starting limousine or sedan services.
Meanwhile, instead of lessening permit restrictions, cutting cab rents or otherwise trying to reform their businesses, cab company owners have stepped up their political lobbying efforts to hurt competition. They've gotten state lawmakers to saddle sedan services with more regulations, including forcing them to charge a minimum fee.
The recent meter increase won't entice former drivers back into the cab business, nor will it keep the current crop of immigrant cabbies from leaving as soon as their English skills and knowledge of local geography are good enough to allow them to drive limousines or radio-dispatched sedans.
Besides, if history is any guide, no matter how much cab company owners swear that the 15-percent meter increase will go strictly to their drivers, they'll end up taking it away by raising cab rents and other fees. They always do. And since the Public Service Commission only controls meter rates, not cab rents or permit prices, there is nothing to stop cab company owners from being as greedy as they want to be.
But I'm not complaining. If Baltimore's cab company owners and taxi permit speculators -- and the politicians who do their bidding -- are happy with the current system, it's fine with me. If more cabs sit on company lots without drivers, it means more customers for me, and I'll happily take all I can get.
Robin Miller, owner of Robin's Limousines, writes from Elkridge. His Web site: http: //www.primenet.com/roblimo.
Pub Date: 12/03/98