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Rahm Emanuel softens his taxi overhaul

Updated: February 18, 2012 8:11AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is softening the blow of his proposed overhaul of Chicago’s taxicab industry in a way that, City Hall contends, will not compromise his commitment to make cabs safer by improving the caliber of vehicles and drivers.

Emanuel initially responded to the salvaged cab controversy that forced the city to yank 400 taxis off the street with a ten-fold increase — from $100,000 to $1 million — in the bond cab companies must post.

In response to industry complaints, the insurance policy that guarantees companies will comply with city regulations will now be dramatically reduced, officials said, without revealing specifics. The proposed $25-per-vehicle “affiliation fee” will drop to $15.

Activist concerns have also prompted the city to alter its definition of wheelchair accessible cabs to preclude “rear access and swivel front-seat vehicles” that, activists contend, do not provide “safe and easily-accessible rides” for people with disabilities.

And the city will conduct an annual audit of the centrally-dispatched taxi service for passengers with wheelchairs to make certain those riders are served.

“The mayor is open to working through changes, but will not budge on his commitment to drastically improve the quality of vehicles and drivers and the safety of the city’s taxi fleet,” mayoral spokesman Tom Alexander wrote in an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times.

In April, 2010, nearly six percent of Chicago’s 6,800 taxicabs were yanked off the street because they were salvaged or rebuilt vehicles that are illegal to use as taxicabs.

After initially seeking $17 million in fines, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley settled for a $1 million penalty from taxicab companies accused of endangering riders by turning wrecks into cabs.

The biggest chunk of the settlement — $839,320 in fines and court costs — was to be paid by Chicago Elite Cab Corp. and 63 related companies tied to Symon Garber, the city’s undisputed taxicab kingpin.

Garber is a Russian businessman who was in the cab business in New York when he befriended Mayor Daley’s son Patrick. A few years later, he was at the top of the taxicab heap in Chicago.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection is scheduled to vote on Emanuel’s plan to pave the way for cabbies to drive newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles, be yanked off the road more quickly for dangerous driving and spend no more than 12 straight hours on the road.

Instead of raising fares for the first time in seven years, it puts more money in drivers’ pockets indirectly — by raising lease rates on more fuel-efficient vehicles in a way that gives cab companies a financial incentive to upgrade.

The maximum number of miles for a new cab put on the street would be cut in half — to 75,000 miles. Cabbies would be limited to 12-hour shifts, with companies “self-policing,” using GPS systems that would become mandatory.

The city would have “real-time access” to the Illinois Secretary of State’s database of moving violations to get repeat offenders yanked off the road immediately, instead of waiting for an annual review. Three moving violations in a 12-month period and the mandatory chauffeurs’ license would not be renewed.

Struggling cabbies responded by petitioning for: a 22 percent fare increase; a $1.50-a-ride “convenience fee” for passengers who use credit cards; a $50 fee for fraudulent credit card transactions; a $1 fee for every additional passenger and a $75 “clean-up fee” for inebriated passengers who lose their lunch in the back of a cab.

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