<bt>Taxi riders already saw a 50 cent surcharge added to fares this year, but by the talk at the county's Taxi Commission meeting Thursday, the cost of getting a ride in Arlington could be going up again in the near future.
Charlie King, owner of Red Top Cabs, said the 50 cent increase has benefited companies like his, but it has not done away with problem of rising fuel costs.
"It would take a 75 cent or $1 increase to do that," said King.
King asked the county to enact the 50 cent surcharge in June, and it was passed on a 60-day emergency basis. The county made it permanent in July and King said a further increase will be necessary.
"The math would justify the increase we're proposing," said King.
The kind of rate increase King said cab companies need would bring the costs up to $2.75 for the first one-fifth of a mile, 35 cents for each additional fifth and 35 cents more for every minute the cab has to sit in traffic.
The average cost of a gallon of gas in Arlington, according to cab inspector Det. Frank Molera, is about $2.31. But, Molera added, the number of rides a cab makes during a day has decreased from 1.58 per hour to 1.52 per hour, and overall revenues for local companies are down 6 percent. The hours cab drivers work are also decreasing, Molera said, from 8.09 per day in 2003 to 7.88 per day in 2004.
The president of Blue Top Cabs, John Masuda, said that may be due to the fact that rising gas prices are causing some drivers to pick and choose the hours that they are on the road.
"Obviously, I do support the rate increase," said Masuda. "This is the fair thing to do. We want to make sure the emphasis is on longer fares and on people who can afford to pay it."
Masuda added that the real fiscal challenge to drivers these days is not gas, it's insurance. Since 9/11, he said, the cost of driver insurance has risen from an average of about $3,300 to more than $6,000.
WHEN THE 50 CENT surcharge first came before the County Board in June, transit officials said they had never seen public opposition to a proposed fare increase. That changed at Thursday's meeting.
"The owners of the companies have never bought one gallon of gas," said Lou Gady. "The drivers buy the gas. Red Top is in the business of selling gas."
Gady added that cab company profits could cover the increased cost of fuel. Cab drivers, however, told the commission that money from the surcharge is helping, but gas prices are still taking a toll on their take-home pay.
"Every single second, every single mile, drivers depend on gas," said driver Alfredo Rayes.
The fare increase may be helping drivers, but it is costing the county money, an additional $7,000 each month according to a report from County Manager Ron Carlee. Carlee found that figure by calculating the added money the county will spend through its program that provides taxi rides to those who are disabled and senior citizens. Det. Molera said that program accounts for about one-third of Red Top's monthly revenue. But the program appears to have some bugs. According to Fran De Silva, chairwoman of the Senior Adult Council for Arlington County, drivers often fail to show up when called for rides. In the case of seniors going to a meal center, a no-show can mean a major problem.
"Then, that senior will not receive their meal for the day," said De Silva.
To reduce air pollution, according to Taxi Commission member Peter Fallan, the county is now considering a pilot program that would put hybrid gasoline-electric taxi cabs on the streets. Fallan said similar programs are now being tested in cities like San Francisco, Calif., and Portland, Ore. But cab driver George Carter said the idea of using hybrids as cabs needs to be re-examined.
"Hybrid cars are a bad idea," said Carter. "Hybrid cars don't have enough room to accommodate the average customer. Sometimes the Crown Victory doesn't have enough room. And hybrid cars would not hold the luggage of people going to the airport."
Hybrids, he added, are not built with the kind of suspension systems that cabs need to be safe.