Amid city riders' complaints, PSC is urged to add cabs, raise fares


Some Baltimore residents say that getting a taxi can be a spiritual experience. You call one and pray it shows up.

"I have only once been able to telephone for a taxi to take me to the airport or the train station and have them come at the time I asked," said Susan Talbott, who moved to Baltimore five years ago from Manhattan. "Even my efforts to get service by calling the night before have been a failure."

When The Sun asked for comments on city taxi service through its Sundial telephone voice-mail system, 38 of 59 callers complained that taxis were chronically late or didn't respond at all to phone calls, or were difficult to find on the street.

"It is virtually impossible to get a cab when you come into the port of Baltimore," said a woman who takes pleasure cruises.

"I've known patients to wait for hours for a taxicab," said another woman who works in a hospital.

"Increase the fares, do anything, but get them off their ass," a man said.

As some riders complain, the Maryland Public Service Commission -- which sets uniform taxi fares and limits the number of cabs operating in Baltimore, Baltimore County, Hagerstown and Cumberland -- is being urged by its staff and others to consider several changes in the rules governing Baltimore cabs.

The changes include putting 68 additional cabs on the streets; taking some cab permits away from owners who apparently are not using them and giving them to others who will; and raising fares 74 percent -- on top of a 12 percent increase granted in November.

The commission also has been urged to study relaxing regulation of city cabs -- to consider, for example, replacing the current uniform fares with a ceiling fare or letting anyone who qualifies have a taxi permit.

Later this month, the five-member PSC is expected to rule on a 4-year-old request by its staff that the commission let an additional 68 taxis cruise Baltimore's streets.

Since 1946, the PSC has set the number of Baltimore cab permits at 1,151. Over the years, 68 of those permits have been revoked or surrendered and have not been reissued -- leaving 1,083 licensed cabs.

The commission's staff argues that those 68 dormant permits would, if reissued, increase service. The taxi industry, which opposes the move, argues that they would merely weaken an industry already shaken by higher operating costs and a shrinking number of riders.

The PSC staff also is asking the commission to revoke the permits of cabs that allegedly sit idle on company lots. An unofficial estimate by a PSC staff member put the total number of unused taxis at 200.

A September 1988 report by a PSC staff economist said there was "a strong possibility" that the handful of owners and associations that dominate the city industry might be deliberately keeping some taxis off the streets.

The aim, the report said, may be to keep competition from forcing cab owners to lower the rent they charge their drivers -- which now ranges from $42 to $60 a day. High rents, the report said, may help keep fares higher than they would otherwise be.

(The PSC does not have statistics on how many cabs are driven by their owners and how many are rented by drivers, but there is one clue: Only 255 of the city's 1,083 taxi permits are held by single-permit owners.)

The proposal to issue 68 additional permits was rejected July 24 by a PSC hearing examiner, Daniel P. Gahagan, who wrote in his decision that far broader changes might be needed.

"In my opinion, we should explore the taxicab industry in a RTC comprehensive way," he wrote. "We should challenge all assumptions and . . . reconsider such basic questions as the need for regulation."

The PSC, he suggested, should study whether to eliminate the )) 1,151 cap on city cab permits; whether to replace uniform fares with a ceiling fare and price competition; and whether to continue to require all cabs to belong to radio-dispatch associations. He called on the commission staff to complete the deregulation study by Aug. 1, 1991.

Though his findings applied only to the Baltimore case, any deregulation study also could be applied to the other three jurisdictions where the commission regulates taxis.

The PSC staff appealed the examiner's decision to the five-member commission, saying all it wanted was the issuance of 68 new permits and the revocation of any unused permits. The commission will rule on that appeal this month.

Some cab company officials concede that there is a shortage of taxicabs and that a significant number sit idle. But they deny that this occurs by design.

"We know that there is a problem with service," said Daniel H. Setzer, general manager of the Royal Taxicab Association. "And the basis for the entire thing is a desperate shortage of drivers. . . . We're trying to operate our cabs without enough drivers to drive them."

Without new drivers, adding 68 cabs would simply add to the number of idle cabs, he said. "Baltimore would have a net gain in cabs of zero," he said.

The best way to recruit new drivers, he said, is with more money -- specifically, the 74 percent fare increase requested Nov. 7 by 85 taxi companies and owners. A decision on that request is due later this year.

Some drivers oppose a fare increase, saying cab owners would grab all of it by raising rents. Mr. Setzer said owners probably would raise rents, but only by enough to absorb about half of the additional income, leaving the other half for drivers.

Not all cab industry officials concede there is a problem with service.

Mark J. Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation, one of the city's largest taxi organizations, said that "87 percent of all the people who call for cabs get the cabs."

Complaints about service, he said, probably come from infrequent riders. "This is not New York; it's not Chicago; it's not Boston; it's not a lot of cities where they have a regular base of riders who support the system," he said.

Because of slack demand from residential customers, he said, his company is concentrating more on institutions such as hospitals, hotels and senior citizen centers.

"If they [cabdrivers] had to depend on residential customers exclusively, they would be busy on rainy days, snowy days and during the first of the month when welfare checks are out, but not for the rest of the month," he said.

Not surprisingly, the cab industry opposes any study of deregulation.

Mr. Joseph said fare competition and the elimination of ceilings on the number of cabs in service have failed wherever they have been tried. "It waters down the quality of service. . . . There's not one city in the country that has deregulated and people have been happy with it," he said.

In December 1979, San Diego lifted its 411-cab limit on permits and repealed standard fares -- only to establish ceiling prices and freeze the number of permits at about 890 a few years later.

Some cities have expanded service but have kept most regulations intact. Pennsylvania's Legislature increased the number of Philadelphia cab permits from 1,400 to 1,600 last April. Boston also recently increased the size of its cab fleet.

In Maryland, many state and city officials appear wary of deregulation proposals.

"I think one of the reasons we have relatively low rates in the city of Baltimore is because we have cabs that have been regulated fairly aggressively," said John M. Glynn, the state people's counsel, who acts as a consumer advocate in matters before the PSC.

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