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Council waits on taxi limits, approves other increases to fare

Friday, February 26, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

After a few twists and turns that at one point had the city attorney pulling up Robert’s Rules of Order on his computer, City Council eventually voted 6-1—with Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez dissenting—for an amended ordinance that would increase taxi rates by 12.7 percent over the next three years. Council Members Randi Shade and Bill Spelman struck sections of the ordinance that would have set maximum taxi rates to certain zones until more information could be gathered on the charges.


All three of Austin’s cab companies: Yellow Cab, Austin Cab, and Lone Star Cab filed an application to increase the taximeter rates of fare, and the current ordinance expires at the end of the month. They met along with drivers and the Urban Transportation Commission and devised a three-year phased-in plan along with a graduated fuel recovery fee, which could be amended bi-monthly in order to shield taxi drivers from absorbing the cost of volatile gas prices.


Along with the 12.7 percent meter increase, the franchisees proposed creating the ABIA Fare Zone, the Austin Central Business District Fare Zone, and the University of Texas/Campus Fare Zone. The ordinance also included several provisions allowing for the lesser of either metered fare or a set fee to be charged. Initially this fee would be $27 one way from the airport to the University Zone, $13 for travel from the airport to the ABIA Zone and $23 with a CBD Zone terminus.


Several drivers complained that adding limits would not make them money because they will not be able to earn for the times they are waiting in traffic. Austin’s freeway congestion typically makes highway taxi rides more expensive than going down 7th Street, for example, out to the airport. The drivers from smaller companies were also concerned that the maximum limits would adversely affect their business because Yellow Cab – which has more than 400 cars in Austin – provides plenty of revenue citywide for drivers, while smaller companies rely mostly on airport trips.


David W. Kelly, a driver for Austin Cab noted that with a maximum fare, he didn’t think people would tip. “What’s wrong with the meter?” he asked. Staff said cab companies were receiving numerous complaints from customers who felt they were being taken advantage of. Shade called up representatives to grill them on the number of complaints.


Shade first wanted to increase the zone fee maximums by a dollar across the board and proposed a friendly amendment to Martinez’s motion. He refused, and she proposed a vote on alternative language. However, Spelman was concerned that not enough data had been collected. City staff had said Houston has such a “max/min” system and told Council that a recent study there found that 95 percent of the fares clocked in below the maximum. When he tried to determine parameters for taxi cab rides and the data sets the city was able to obtain from cab companies he was unsatisfied. 


Spelman then proposed amending Shade’s revised language resulting in parliamentary confusion. At the end of some discussion, Shade agreed to cut three sections from the ordinance – effectively eliminating any language pertaining to maximum limits until staff could come back with further information on trips and a sensitivity analysis to price.


Martinez, for his part, said he didn’t understand why an item designed to protect consumers and visitors from being up-charged on meandering taxi rides would be de-fanged right before the largest yearly influx of visitors. He told In Fact Daily, “My vote today on Item 52 was not a vote against raising taxi cab rates, rather it was a vote against removing provisions that I feel are vital to the health of the industry. As we approach a holiday season that includes South by Southwest, an event that involves nearly 172,000 people, I believe having consumer protections like flat rates would protect our visitors from potentially unfair pricing practices. I look forward to continuing the discussion about zones and corresponding flat rates as we move forward.”

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