Council ponders cab-rate changes

Small operators say meter should reflect higher gas prices

June 07, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

The Anne Arundel County Council might overhaul a bill that would offer the taxi industry relief from rising fuel prices, heeding a call from small cab operators who want meter rates adjusted rather than gas surcharges imposed.

The council postponed a final vote on emergency legislation this week that would link a surcharge taxi drivers collect to the price of gasoline.

Instead, legislators said they will discuss whether to adjust the meter rates next week at a council work session. A few support that idea but said overhauling the rate schedule on short notice might be impractical.

"My feeling there, the right way to do it is to show [the gasoline surcharge] on the meter so the customer does not dispute anything," Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said yesterday in a phone interview. "It doesn't do the customer any good, and it doesn't do the driver any good."

Currently, the county has a flat gas surcharge of $1 per taxi ride. Under the proposed fee schedule in the emergency legislation, a surcharge of $2 would be imposed for all cab rides through Oct. 1. That surcharge would drop to nothing if the cost of a gallon of gas fell below $2; it could climb to as high as $5 if gas hits $4.01 or more. The bill is supported by County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat.

Anne Arundel's larger cab companies approve of the graduated scale of surcharges, saying drivers desperately need immediate financial relief because rising fuel prices are eating up profits. Owners of Cab Connection, Associated Cab Co. and Yellow Cab Co. - along with county officials - played down calls to adjust meter rates, saying the industry could not afford further delay.

A gallon of regular unleaded gas in Maryland averaged $2.98 yesterday - an 89-cent increase over the same time last year - according to AAA.

Robert Simms, president of Cab Connection, said after his testimony Monday that "if we don't do something in several weeks, we will start losing drivers."

The drivers from smaller companies said revising the meter rates would solve the problem once and for all. Escalating fuel prices last year pushed the Owens administration to introduce a bill for the $1 fuel surcharge.

"We keep coming back here every year," said David Hill, a cabdriver from Harmans. "Let's solve the problem and put the thing on the meter."

In Anne Arundel County, the base rate for a taxi ride is $2. Riders are charged 20 cents for each eighth of a mile and 20 cents for each 30-second wait, for example stopping at a red light.

Taking into consideration the $1 fuel surcharge, a five-mile ride costs about $11, said Spurge Eismeier, director for the county's Department of Inspections and Permits. In Howard County, the same ride would be $10.94, he said.

Cabdrivers from smaller businesses testified that they face great difficulty in collecting the $1 surcharge because it is not reflected on the meter, although drivers are required to place stickers in the taxi alerting riders to the surcharge.

They said riders suspect they are being cheated, refuse to pay, and in a few instances react violently. One driver, Tony Bennett, referred to taxi driver Oumar Bah - who was fatally shot last week in Baltimore in what police said was a robbery - to demonstrate the danger that cabdrivers face.

Some drivers said they won't ask for the surcharge because it will hurt their tips. Doubling the surcharge to $2 won't help.

"We need everything on the meter," said Jeff Koors, who runs Liberty Cab in Brooklyn Park. "If it's not on the meter, people will argue it."

Russell Brannan, a Glen Burnie taxi driver, equated the meter to a cash register. "You look at the cash register, and you know what to pay."

Council members said that larger taxi operations tend to serve a regular, more established customer base that reacts less to a fuel surcharge. In fact, Emmett Willis, owner of Associated Cab Co., said: "We haven't had any problems dealing with surcharges. I would rather have this than have nothing at all."

Cabdrivers with the smaller businesses said they are less sure of whom they are picking up.

"The people they are picking up have no relationship, and that makes a big difference," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis-area Democrat.

She said that if the surcharge is not reflected "on the meter, I can see why they have a problem."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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