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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Higher taxi fees headed to Urban Transportation Commission
The Austin City Council on Thursday delayed final action on a proposed change to the base fare charged to the city’s taxicab patrons. In the process, they opened up debate on just how the charge would work, and how much extra it will cost riders.
The move came on a substitute motion from Council Member Chris Riley. Riley argued his colleagues to consider a $1 per person base fare addition. He also suggested that they lift a four person cap on cabs that could accommodate more passengers. With the Council posted only for action on the fees, the body will have to wait to take action on that matter. Council Member Laura Morrison’s original resolution called for a flat $2.50 surcharge for riders between the hours of 9pm and 4am.
The majority of Riley’s colleagues – including Morrison – agreed with his substitutions. The lone dissent came from Council Member Kathie Tovo, who had co-sponsored the original change. Mayor Lee Leffingwell was out of town on city business.
The measure will now head for review at the city’s Urban Transportation Commission before it comes back to Council for final approval.
In addition to eventual Council resistance, Morrison’s idea met with some in-person resistance from two of Austin’s three official cab franchises. Austin Yellow cab president Ed Kargbo argued for the $1 per person charge that Riley would ultimately embrace. “Instead of adding $2.50…as a surcharge at night I’m asking you to consider a solution that is more consistent with what other cities do, it’s consistent throughout the industry, and it gives equal consideration to all consumers of taxi cabs,” he said.
Kargbo further suggested that the $1 per person fee would benefit “the independent contractor drivers, passengers, and meets the desires of the City Council to entice more independent contractor drivers to work at night.”
Lone Star Cab Company President Solomon Kassa agreed. “The majority of my drivers support the $1 surcharge,” he said.
Kargbo added that the city’s third taxi franchise, Austin Cab Company, also supported the $1 per person fee.
Tovo wondered if $1 per person would be enough. “I assume that the taxi drivers, based on their experience had a sense of what the different options were, and that their experience led them to believe that they would do better economically with a $2.50 since they brought this proposal to us,” she posited.
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid attorney D’Ann Johnson represents Austin’s cab drivers. She told Tovo that the drivers didn’t present Council with a proposal that included the $1 fee because the idea had been rejected during 2010 fare discussions. “It was rejected by (city) staff—the franchises opposed it also,” Johnson said.
Prompted by a question from Council Member Bill Spelman, Johnson said that the drivers would support either the $2.50 surcharge or the $1 per passenger add-on. “Either one,” Johnson said. “But the $2 per person is better than the $1 per person.”
“I understand that,” Spelman countered. “At least from the taxi driver’s point of view.”
Johnson had pointed out that Dallas enforces a $2 per person base charge.
Riley quoted from a study performed for the city by Dr. Ray Mundy. “The overall effect of a taxi rate increase hits low income and transportation disabled members of the community the hardest,” he read.
“With (Morrison’s) amendment, we will have the highest base rate in the state of Texas,” Riley added.
Tovo noted that other cities charge other fees – separate from the base rate – that should be factored in to the Council’s decision. “It’s a little tricky comparing base rates — base rates are only part of the equation,” she said. “I’m looking, for example, at Dallas, which, as we’ve heard, charges a $2 fee per extra passenger, considerably more than the substitute motion Council Member Riley has proposed. They also have a depart surcharge for Love Field, a $3.60 fee for DFW, a $2.60 drop off fee. I think if we’re going to make comparisons to other municipalities we really need to factor in those other fees too.”
Morrison wondered about the effect on low income Austinites. “Council Member Riley had mentioned impact on low income folks, which, I think, everybody on this dais is concerned about,” she said. “But on the other hand, we’ve heard Mrs. Johnson mention that between the hours of 9pm and 4am, we’re not looking at low-income folks going to the grocery store or to the doctor.”
Assistant Austin Transportation director Gordon Derr told Morrison that the department could come up with such data, though it didn’t have it on hand immediately. Kargbo told Morrison that Yellow Cab could produce data that might help clarify the situation.
“Not all trips are just downtown,” he said. “You have people that work late coming home, you’ve got people going to the movie theaters and other stuff. We will make sure that we will try and consolidate that data as quickly as possible.”
A separate measure sets City Manager Marc Ott’s office on a mission to come up with recommendations for a $100 cab clean-up fee for passengers who create a mess passed on consent.
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