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Aldermen propose $1 taxi-ride surcharge to help budget

Chicago taxicab riders would pay a $1-a-ride surcharge, but the $70 million raised by the fee would go to the city budget - not struggling cabbies - under a surprise plan proposed Wednesday by a pair of influential aldermen.

Although cabdrivers have been waiting more than five years for another fare hike, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) want to raise fares to boost city revenues, leaving cabbies out in the cold.

On the same day that the City Council debated a 2011 budget precariously balanced with parking meter reserves and other one-shot revenues, Burke and Austin proposed the $1-a-ride surcharge to help offset a $1 billion drop in city revenues in recent years.

Burke made no apologies for reserving all the money for the city treasury and not a cent for struggling cabbies, who have petitioned the City Council for a 22 percent fare hike.

"These are tough times. We've got to pay policemen and firemen and take care of injured policemen and firemen. We're getting murdered by the obligations we have to the pension funds. I'm just throwing this out as a suggestion. It's one way we can quickly get a pretty substantial amount of money without a great deal of pain," he said.

The Finance Committee chairman argued that Chicagoans "seldom use" cabs and that the $1 increase would be primarily paid by "visitors to Chicago" and "business people on expense accounts."

"Our taxicab fares in Chicago are less than most of the major cities in America and it seems to me to be a painless, easy way of generating about $70 million, which we sorely need," he said.

"In fact, if we were able to generate that kind of revenue, we might even be able to do away with the head tax, which businesses in Chicago feel is an anathema. If that would help them expand jobs and hire more people in Chicago, it would be a step in the right direction."

The ordinance introduced Wednesday would apply a $1 surcharge - in addition to the 50-cent or $1 fuel surcharge tacked on whenever gasoline prices rise above a certain level - to every cab rider "originating within the corporate limits" of Chicago.

The average fare for a five-mile trip would rise from $13.22 to $14.22. Even with the $1 increase, Chicago cab fares would remain lower than a host of major cities, including Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Miami. Chicago fares would also be lower than peak-hour and nighttime fares in New York City.

Armed with a survey that shows they're working 13 hours a day for $4.38 an hour, Chicago cabdrivers have been lobbying for months for a 22 percent fare hike.

They reacted angrily to the proposal to raise fares for the city budget while ignoring drivers' needs.

"It stinks. I'm bewildered how they can do this to us. They don't listen to our concerns," said veteran cabbie Ken Cooper.

"They need to approve a fare hike and let us keep the money. Our costs are going up. They just keep taking more and more money from us. People are already bitching about the fuel surcharge. This will just cut into our tips even more."

Cabbie George Kasp noted that most cabdrivers are "self-employed independent contractors" struggling to eke out a living.

"To use them to shore up the city budget is absurd. Why not ask groceries and liquor stores to cough up $1 for each sale," Kasp said.

Under the proposal, cabbies - who already complain about being strangled by city regulations - would be required to collect the $1 surcharge and "remit" the money to the city's Department of Revenue. They would be required to keep "accurate and complete books and records" on surcharge collections. Those books would be "subject to inspection" by the city.