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Cabbies furious over Emanuel’s clean-energy edict at train stations

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Location of stands reserved exclusively for compressed natural gas cabs:

♦ Madison and Canal

♦ 200 S. Canal

♦ Madison and Clinton

♦ 100 N. Clinton

♦ 400 W. Jackson

Updated: August 12, 2013 11:37AM

Chicago cabdrivers who’ve been waiting eight years for a fare increase are up in arms about a clean-energy initiative they fear will take money out of their pockets.

Five cab stands serving Union Station and the Ogilvie Transportation Center are being exclusively reserved for cabs using compressed natural gas.

Roughly 71 percent - or 4,201 - of Chicago cabs are hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles, but only 340 of them run on natural gas. The cost of adapting a vehicle to natural gas is pegged at roughly $10,000, which is also the added cost of purchasing a new vehicle that runs on natural gas.

The city has two compressed natural gas stations.

By dedicating the five most lucrative downtown cab stands for compressed natural gas vehicles, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is hoping to boost, the number of CNG taxis and stations.

The six-month pilot program is not sitting well with cabdrivers struggling to meet rising expenses.

“There hasn’t been a fare increase and now, they’re gonna be shooing us away from cab stands where you wait for money to come out in a matter of minutes,” said veteran cabdriver George Kasp, whose proposal for a 13.2 percent fare hike is awaiting a City Council hearing.

“They’re taking away the five prime spots in all of downtown,” Kasp said. “There are no comparable places this dependable. These stands are where I pick up passengers between 5 a.m. and noon. Now, they’re saying you can’t sit there unless you’re a compressed natural gas cab. This is crazy.”

Melissa Callahan, another Chicago cabbie, called the mayor’s clean energy edict “infuriating.” She noted that Emanuel’s sweeping taxicab reforms imposed a “tiered lease system” that placed compressed natural gas cabs in the top tier.

“The majority of cabdrivers don’t have access to these cabs because they’re the most expensive cab you can possibly lease,” Callahan said.

“The city is out of control with their regulations and idealistic programs. It does not coincide with the reality on the streets of Chicago. If you take all of these major cab stands away from non-CNG cabs, you’re gonna see more overcrowding at stands near hotels and the city will benefit from that by ticketing.”

Jennifer Lipford, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, stressed that non-CNG cabs will be free to use the stands if there are no compressed natural gas taxis available.

“We’re trying to promote the use of clean fuel, but it’s not meant to be punitive for other drivers. We’re not issuing violations. The only way enforcement would work is that other cabs may be asked to leave in favor of a CNG cab,” Lipford said.

She added, “We’re talking about five locations downtown out of hundreds of locations that are lucrative. It’s not taking away anybody’s bread and butter. We’re trying to give them an opportunity to see how good compressed natural gas is and see if it works for them. It’s a pilot program. It’s five cab stands. It’s not punitive and they’ll still be able to serve passengers at Metra stations when CNG drivers can’t.”

Chicago cab fares have been frozen since an 11.7 percent increase imposed by the City Council in 2005. The last increase before that — 16.6 percent — was approved in 2000 and tied to a controversial requirement that cabdrivers answer at least one radio call each day in underserved communities.

Emanuel’s reforms raised the lease rates drivers pay — by as much as 31 percent for the most fuel-efficient vehicles — while cabbies claim they walked away virtually empty-handed.

The mayor’s only concession to drivers was to make the $1 fuel surcharge permanent and to fold it into the cost of entering a cab, known as the “flag pull.”

Natural gas cabs emit up to 30 percent less greenhouse gas than taxis that run on gasoline or diesel fuel. They also reduce fuel costs — to the equivalent of $2.35 to $2.66-a-gallon.

“We are transforming taxi service in Chicago by bringing more efficiency and innovation to our fleets while incentivizing our cab drivers to better serve their passengers and the environment they drive in,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release.

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