Permit lottery hails 68 new cabbies


For an instant yesterday afternoon, Johnanna R. Kirkland was a winner.

Fleeting victory came when she heard the man at the podium read aloud the seven-digit number on her ticket: 2-7-4-1-4-3-9. She could scarcely believe it.

"Whoa. That's me," she declared, loud enough to be heard three rows back from where she sat.

Success at last. The little scrap of paper was a chance at a better life, to be her own boss, work her own hours, and most importantly, it meant money for her kids.

Pats on the back from fellow taxicab drivers. A television reporter armed with a cameraman came --ing toward her.

But it was then (a second later? two?) that her dream abruptly ended. Hearing examiner O. Ray Bourland III reread the number, then the winner's name.

It was not Johnanna R. Kirkland. The short and stocky mother of three had missed by a single digit. No film at 11.

"I was close," a still-upbeat Ms. Kirkland, 45, of Baltimore said afterward. "At least a friend won. That's just as good."

Ms. Kirkland was one of about 40 Baltimore cabbies who had gathered in the War Memorial Building on Gay Street downtown to watch as representatives of the Maryland Public Service Commission held their first lottery to determine who would get 68 surplus city taxi permits.

About 980 drivers and cab companies applied for the state-issued permits, which had been accumulated by the commission since 1946. They will raise to 1,151 the total number of permits in circulation in the city.

The odds of winning were not all that great -- about 1 in 14 -- but a significant amount of money was at stake. Self-employed cab drivers can earn hundreds of dollars more each week than drivers who must lease a taxi from a permit holder.

The PSC awards permits for free, but they are routinely resold by owners and currently fetch about $16,000. The 68 permits must be actively used for at least four years, after which they may be transferred.

"What do you call this, free money?" said cab driver Reginald J. Thomas, 38, of West Baltimore, who paid $17,500 for a permit last summer. "My investment was 75 cents on a meter. At least I got out of the cold."

Attendance at the lottery was optional. Elizabeth T. Crowder of Woodlawn didn't bother to show up but won anyway. The 54-year-old widow learned of her good fortune through a reporter's telephone call.

"I'm happy about it, but I guess it hasn't sunk in yet," said Ms. Crowder, a former forklift operator who has been driving a taxi for 16 years. "It's nice to get something for free."

For most of those who came to the War Memorial Building and lost, the mood after the lottery was subdued at best. A few were named among the 120 chosen as alternates. They get a permit only if winners are determined to be unqualified.

Some of the drivers complained that permit holders and cab companies should not have been allowed to participate. Others just lamented the hard life of a taxi driver these days: crummy tips, 12-hour days, fewer fares thanks to the economic recession and illegal gypsy hackers who siphon away customers.

"If their [the PSC's] goal was to increase cab ownership, this wasn't the way to do it," said Edward K. Cohen, a veteran Mount Vernon cab driver who would have restricted the drawing to non-permit holders.

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