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Fare warning? Chicago taxicab overhaul could be on the way

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Updated: November 26, 2011 8:12AM

Chicago has the nation’s second-lowest big city taxicab fares and the highest gas prices based on an “out-of-whack” economic system that saddles the city with older vehicles and rewards cabbies for driving fast, a top mayoral aide said Monday, setting the stage for an overhaul.

Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said she’s working to update taxi regulation for the first time in nearly 20 years with an eye toward improving safety, “greening” the fleet and stabilizing the economics of an industry in turmoil.

Possibilities range from raising lease rates for the first time since the mid-1990’s and imposing a $1-per-ride surcharge proposed last year by a powerful alderman to increasing the cost of entering a cab and altering a meter rate for movement that rewards bad behavior.

“Meters click faster when you’re moving than when you’re standing, which means it’s much more profitable for a cabdriver to ... change lanes constantly, rather than to sit there at the light or wait for the light. We need to change that incentive,” Krimble said while testifying at City Council budget hearings. “I just thought it was in their DNA that they had to drive like that,” joked Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.

Krimbel noted that the lease rates have “not been touched since 1996,” making “cheaper Ford Crown Victorias the most economical choice” for cab owners to put on the street. Struggling cabbies have been waiting six years for a fare increase.

The commissioner said she wants to get away from fuel surcharges that go off and on with the rise and fall of gas prices, destination and the number of passengers, leaving passengers thoroughly confused.

“We want to…. build those surcharges right into the flag pull, instead of having it be, ‘This week it’s 50 cents. Next week, it’s $1’…..We want it to be clean and clear so the passenger in the backseat knows what they’re gonna pay and they don’t have to do any negotiating with the cabdriver,” she said.

Last year, Burke suggested a $1-a-ride surcharge and proposed that the $70 million in revenue be used to shore up the city budget.

On Monday, Burke was encouraged to learn that the surcharge idea was still in play and that the industry was in line for a much-needed overhaul.

“Most Chicagoans would agree that the cabs on the streets are not a source of pride in many instances, that the drivers are not polite, that the way in which they operate the cabs is frightening and that overall, the regulation of drivers leaves a good deal to be desired,” Burke said.

To improve driver behavior, Krimbel plans to use federal transportation funds to slap a bumper sticker on all 6,900 Chicago cabs encouraging people to call 311 to report good and bad cabdrivers.

Won’t that inundate 311 calltakers?

“I hope they’re inundated with calls because I track every single call that comes in on a cab and this is one of the ways that we discipline and we track our cab drivers and our medallion owners, so I’m okay with that,” she said.

Last year, nearly six percent of Chicago’s 6,800 taxicabs — more than 400 vehicles — were yanked off the streets because they were salvaged or rebuilt vehicles that are illegal to use as taxicabs.

After initially seeking $17 million in fines, former 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.

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