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Taxi drivers push for fare increase

Move would make rate among highest in nation

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 2, 2008

Inside a dingy cinder-block snack stand at Logan International Airport, taxi drivers scarfed falafel sandwiches, bought lottery tickets, and talked of an uprising. The cost of gas is increasing. The slow economy is scaring away customers. And they cannot make money.

Now is the time, they said. The drivers, newly organized by the United Steelworkers union, have asked Boston for the first increase in their per-mile fare in six years - a proposal that would make a city cab ride one of the most expensive in the nation. If approved by the Police Department, which regulates taxi fares, the cost of a 4-mile ride would go from $11.55 to $16.70.

The proposal, which the city has agreed to review at a public hearing, would increase the per-mile rate by 50 percent and the starting fare from $2.25 to $2.75.

The drivers, many of them recent immigrants, say the request is a matter of basic economics. They work 12- to 16-hour shifts, five or six days a week. They pay $77 a day to lease a medallion. They shell out $60 for gas every shift. And their battered Crown Victorias - when they are not in the repair shop - gulp a gallon of gas every 10 miles.

Two years ago, drivers easily pocketed $550 to $600 a week. Now, they say, they barely take home $400 a week.

"You can't survive or support your family," said Khalid Ouardani, a 38-year-old taxicab driver and Moroccan immigrant who said he recently posted his résumé on Monster.com in hopes of finding a new line of work. "You can't make it in this business."

But the proposal could generate a backlash in a city where taxis are sometimes reviled for their droning radios and often malodorous interiors. While customers said they sympathized with drivers paying more at the pump, they said a 50 percent per-mile increase was too much.

Lindsay Graham, 25, who was near a taxi stand in Copley Square last week, called the proposal "ridiculous." John Kuo, 20, who was waiting for a taxi at Logan, called the idea "definitely annoying." And several customers said the increase would be enough to persuade them to take the bus or the subway, even for longer rides with heavy bags.

"I try to avoid using taxis as much as possible because of the price it already costs, so if it goes up, I probably won't take cabs anymore," said Holly Goldsmith, 23, a North End resident.

Some worry that the increase could also pinch tourists, who often rely on taxis to navigate Boston's maze-like streets.

"Whether it's the cost of transportation to and from the airport or air fares going up, let's face it: People traveling analyze all of this now more so than ever before, so we obviously have to be guarded," said David J. Colella, vice president and managing director of the Colonnade Hotel in Boston. "We don't want to become the city that's considered too expensive. Boston is already considered an expensive city."

Taxi drivers failed in their last attempts to increase fares, in 2005 and 2006, when the city refused to hold a hearing on their requests to increase the per-mile rate by 33 percent, from $2.40 to $3.20. This time, the drivers are better organized and are getting more results.

Last October, with the help of the United Steelworkers, a small band of drivers launched the Boston Taxi Drivers Association to push for better pay and more clout. The organization, based in a one-room office in South Boston, now claims 1,200 members in a city with 6,000 drivers.

In March, the association formally asked the Boston Police Department for the 50 percent increase, which would push the cost per mile to $3.60, higher than in New York, Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago. The drivers got no response until Friday, when the department agreed to the hearing, which is scheduled for June 24 at Roxbury Community College.

Elaine Driscoll, a police spokeswoman, said that in addition to a fare rise, the hearing will look into increasing the number of hybrid taxis in Boston and making consumer-friendly changes, such as allowing customers to pay with credit cards in more cabs.

Union officials said the forum was long overdue.

"What [the Police Department] has done is create an underclass of workers in the city, and we're united to change that," said Donna Blythe-Shaw, the Steelworker's staff representative, who organizes the drivers from an office cluttered with papers and decorated with snapshots of taxi drivers posing with Governor Deval Patrick.

Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the mayor wants to find a "middle ground" on fare increases and believes that if the taxis get an increase, the city should get something in return, such as an agreement to switch to more hybrid taxis.

Maureen E. Feeney, City Council president, proposed a task force to examine a range of issues plaguing taxi drivers, such as their complaint that taxis from outside Boston are picking up customers in the city, in violation of the law.

Some taxi industry insiders say Boston must go the way of New York City, which plans to convert its entire taxi fleet to hybrid vehicles by 2012, to reduce air pollution and save drivers an average of $10,000 a year in fuel costs. Boston has tried to encourage more drivers to switch to hybrid taxis, but there are only 32 such vehicles in the city's fleet of 1,825.

Meanwhile, as Boston officials prepare for the hearing, taxi drivers say they are suffering. The last time the city increased the per-mile rate was September 2002, when it went from $2 to $2.40. Back then, the average price of a gallon of self-serve unleaded in Massachusetts was $1.44. Three years later, the city tacked an additional .50 cents onto the starting fare after Hurricane Katrina sent gas prices past the $2 mark.

These days, of course, prices are much higher. As of yesterday, the average cost of a gallon of self-serve regular unleaded in Massachusetts was $3.97. Taxi drivers said they are struggling not only to pay those prices, but to afford staples like food, clothing, and housing.

"Why should taxi drivers be ashamed to make money?" said Mikhail Glikberg, 51, a Ukrainian immigrant and taxi driver for 17 years. "It should be obvious that we're people serving people, and we have to make a living."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.


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