City approves taxi surcharges

Annapolis legislation ties fare increases to fluctuations in gas prices

October 14, 2005|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

When gas prices soar, there's only one remedy the taxi industry can pursue: Wait on local jurisdictions to adjust fare prices.

But the wheels of government don't exactly accelerate from zero to 60 in 5 seconds. With the way the price of fuel has soared in recent months, by the time officials respond to one surge, they are trying to catch up to the next one.

This week, the Annapolis city council approved a series of taxi surcharges that would go into effect when gas prices hit $3 a gallon, and again when it tops $4. City leaders sought to enact the legislation, which would more rapidly respond to the price fluctuations and keep taxi businesses from stalling out.

Anne Arundel County is considering drafting a bill similar in scope, although details are unknown. The County Council passed emergency legislation last month to add a $1 surcharge on all fares within the county, but some members have pointed to the need to enact a bill that would link surcharges on a sliding scale based on gas prices.

Area representatives of the taxi industry have met once with Spurge Eismeier, the county's director of inspections and permits, since the County Council approved the taxi surcharge last month, said Robert Simms, president of Cab Connection, a North County business. The county is researching the matter, and Simms said he's hopeful that more comprehensive legislation would be presented to the council by year's end.

The usual process of petitioning county officials for help - and getting a bill adopted and approved - takes months. As the price of gas rises, so do related costs, such as for parts.

"And it's very difficult for drivers to earn a living," Simms said.

Ronald C. Dillon Jr., chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council, said he would support a bill to assist taxi businesses.

Dillon, who helps oversee his family's bus company, Dillon's Bus Service Inc., said he has had to raise fares to keep up with rising gas costs. Experts have attributed the spikes to demand from China and fluctuations in supply caused by hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

He said he was sympathetic to the plight of the taxi industry, whose fares are set by local governments.

"Sometimes you are dealing with one-car operations, and the gas prices can have huge impacts on these businesses," Dillon said. "Unfortunately, they are unable to raise their prices."

The Annapolis city council voted several months ago to adjust the fee schedule for city-licensed taxis, the first such rate overhaul in five years.

Danielle Matland, director of the city's transportation department, said she had anticipated that the new fee schedule, updated for inflation, would cover the taxi industry for gas prices up to $3 a gallon. Then hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, knocking out some of the drilling and refining capacity throughout the region.

Gas prices reached about $3.50 a gallon in some parts of Maryland but have fallen somewhat. Still, Matland said the city must enact additional legislation or "you will have some people go out of business."

The bill passed Monday by the city council would allow taxis - when gas prices are between $3 and $3.99 a gallon - to add a 50-cent surcharge for rides within the Annapolis area and a $1 surcharge for rides to most other places in the county. If gas prices increase to $4 a gallon or above, the surcharges would jump to $1 and $2, respectively.

Riders would face additional fees on rides to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and to adjacent counties, and for trips exceeding 50 miles.

"We wanted to create a system that neither gouges customers" nor hurts taxi drivers, Matland said.

Simms said the taxi industry hoped the county would adopt a measure that met those interests "as soon as possible - in case gas prices continue to increase."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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