Pushed by rising prices for gasoline, insurance and repairs, taxicab fares will go up Friday in Baltimore City and Baltimore County for the first time in seven years, and Howard County isn't far behind.
A five-mile ride will cost $10.15 in the city and Baltimore County, up about 20 percent from current rates of $8.50 in the city and $8.60 in the county, under a decision by the Maryland Public Service Commission.
When city and county cab drivers got their last fare increase, in 1998, unleaded regular gas averaged $1.06 a gallon, according to government statistics.
The higher rates are designed to help drivers whose modest incomes are being eroded by expenses that increased about $1,900 between 2001 and 2003 - before the current spike in gas prices, now averaging more than $2.20 a gallon as the price of a barrel of oil climbed past $60.
The flat-rate charge from downtown to Baltimore-Washington International Airport will increase $4 to $23, the commission's order said. A fuel surcharge of 65 cents in the city and 55 cents in Baltimore County - paid by riders since May 2004 - would be dropped, and incorporated into the per-mile rate.
In Howard, County Executive James N. Robey has approved a taxi-rate bill for consideration by the County Council in July. The measure would increase the cost of a four-mile ride from $6.25 to $9.18 including a 90-cent gasoline surcharge. Other surcharges would increase 50 cents for trips outside the county and $1 for using a credit card for trips longer than 20 miles. A new $4 charge would be allowed for requesting a van.
Anne Arundel County's cab rates increased in September, and Annapolis' rates went up in February.
The rising price of gasoline appears to be the driving force behind the increases. Gas prices rose 8 cents a gallon in the past two weeks to reach a national average of $2.21 a gallon for self-serve regular last weekend, according to Trilby Lundberg, who publishes a semimonthly survey of 7,000 stations.
Yesterday, crude oil prices reached a record $60.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange - before closing at $60.54 - amid concerns that supplies would not meet demand. Analysts said prices could go higher.
The Consumer Price Index is up 21 percent since the last city/county cab fare increase.
George Akfo, 45, a four-year driver for Columbia Cab in Howard County, said he must work six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., to make a living. "It has been very difficult for us," he said. "We have to put in more hours."
Akfo, married with three children, said he spends $35 each day to fill the tank of his Chevy Lumina and pays $140 a week to the cab company.
Dwight R. Kines, general manager of Yellow Transportation in Baltimore, said his drivers pay from $100 to $450 a week to the company, depending on individual circumstances. He said the company won't increase the drivers' weekly rates this summer, which is traditionally a slower time for cab drivers.
"I'm very satisfied with this," Kines said. "This new rate structure will allow them to make a better living.
The increase also will eliminate slight rate differences between the city and county, although that was not a goal, Kines said.
In Howard County's suburban spaces, drivers face an added disadvantage because they rarely can find fares in consecutive sequence, said Columbia Cab owner Charles Barnes, whose firm requested the increase in March.
"Our drivers almost always have to come back to the stand to get another passenger," he said, burning more gas to return empty from each paying ride.
In written testimony submitted by Kines, whose company operates Checker, Sun and Yellow cabs, he said Baltimore has the 99th-lowest cab rates among the country's largest 100 cities.
In New York, a five-mile cab ride would cost at least $12.50, according to the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission's Web site. In Philadelphia, the city's parking authority was expected to approve yesterday a rate increases that would see a similar ride go to at least $12.80 from the current $11.30.
Terry Oates, chief financial officer for Yellow, said in written testimony that the average Baltimore cab driver nets $18,700 a year for owner-operators, too little to allow 81 percent of them to afford health insurance. A fleet driver who rents a cab nets $11,449 a year, according to the testimony.
The commission's order said no residents appeared at any of three hearings scheduled in May on the increases.
But yesterday at Penn Station in Baltimore, Michael Casgo, 24, said he thought the increases would make people think twice about taking a cab. "They'll be less willing," said Casgo, who has lived in Baltimore for a year.
Carlos Blackburn, 36, a student from Scotland in town for surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the fares seem "reasonable, compared to New York.
"Gas prices are astronomical," he said. "I'm sure that cuts into their bottom line."
Drivers in Howard typically net about $500 a week, said Pascal Bright, part-owner and director of operations for Columbia Flyer, Columbia Cab's chief rival.
Most, like Akfo, who is from Ghana, are immigrants.
"They have more difficulty landing jobs," Barnes said. "We have people who have been professional people back home."
Sun staff writer Mariana Minaya contributed to this article.