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Transportation Commission OKs taxicab rate increase

Thursday, February 11, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The city is one step closer to enacting the first rate hike for taxicabs in five years. On Tuesday, the Urban Transportation Commission voted unanimously to approve a staff recommendation to raise cabs rates. They also voted to recommend that City Council direct staff to explore the possibility of a flat rate from the airport to the University of Texas area and downtown.


The City Council will take up the issue as part of its Feb. 25 agenda.


The last fare increase, of 14.3 percent, was in 2005, when a five-year plan was adopted by the city. Since then, the cost of living in Austin has gone up 13.7 percent while taxi-related operating costs for drivers have increased 20 percent. On Dec. 31 the heads of the city’s three taxi franchises – Austin Cab Company, Lone Star Cab Company, and Yellow Cab Company – sent a rate change request to the city and a request for a three-year plan with gradual fare increases, a response to the uncertain economic climate.


The plan the commission approved involves three parts. The first concerns basic rates:


        2010: Increase Taximeter drop (initial charge) from $2 to $2.50 (resulting in a 3.6 percent increase for a six-mile trip)


        2011: Increase of 10 cents per mile (4.2 percent increase for six-mile trip)


        2012: Increase of 10 cents per mile (4 percent for six-mile trip) and an increase in waiting time (time spent not moving) rates from $27 to $29.


The second concerns the average price of gas, which will be reviewed every two months instead of quarterly to keep up with volatile markets.


Lastly, the plan addresses the issue of minimum basic rates and maximum zone rates. With maximum zone rates, the fare would be the lesser of the meter charge and the maximum zone rate to and from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA):


        $13 minimum basic rate for trips originating at ABIA.


        Maximum zone rates to and from the Central Business District – 2010: $23; 2011: $24; 2012: $25


        Maximum zone rates to and from UT – 2010: $27; 2011: $28; 2012: $29


Under the terms of the proposal, the Central Business District is defined by 19th on the north, Riverside Drive on the south, Lamar Boulevard on the west, and I-35 on the east. UT is defined by 38th Street on the north, 19th Street on the south, Lamar on the west, and I-35 on the east.


The issue of maximum zone rates has been a sticking point for both the commission and taxi drivers.


Commission Chair Richard MacKinnon said that the commission voted to recommend to City Council that they direct staff to explore the feasibility of a straight flat rate, versus the minimum and maximum rate approach, because it would be easier to explain to the public and because the maximum zone rate system would require city staff to monitor drivers to make sure they’re driving the shortest distance.


“If we have a flat rate,” MacKinnon said, “drivers will go the most cost-effective way.”


Meanwhile, cab driver and former member of the Airport Advisory Commission Hannah Riddering told In Fact Daily that city staff is basing their maximum rate formula on the average rates of closer spots within a particular zone, not the farthest spots. “It’s one thing to drive someone to the Omni Hotel from the airport,” she said, “which is about the same rate as the maximum zone rate for the Central Business District. But if I drive someone all the way to Lamar, I’m going to lose two to three dollars on that trip.”


That loss, she said, would steal from drivers and nullify the proposed rate increase.


Riddering also said that passengers often don’t tip on flat-rate charges.


“This is a blanket punishment for a few screw-ups who take the long way to and from the airport and try to cheat passengers,” she said. “It’s not fair to punish everyone for the crimes of a few.”


Transportation Regulatory Manager Steve Grassfield, who presented staff’s proposal to the commission, told In Fact Daily that though he understands drivers’ concerns, this new wage rate increase would make them “the highest paid (drivers) in the state.”


He said that the average charge on a six-mile trip (including the existing tax fuel surcharge of 10 cents a mile) would jump to $14.85. That’s higher than in Dallas ($13.05), Houston ($13.72), and San Antonio ($14.30).


“We have the highest cost of living in the state,” Grassfield said, so we should have the highest rates.”

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