In a tourism-dependent city like New Orleans, it's essential to have reliable, readily available taxicabs. City government has recognized this need and has tried to make sure that any price adjustments are fair both to the cabbies and to the riders. Last month, however, a City Council committee cut too much from the fees, which, combined with rising fuel costs, could end up eliminating part of the city's taxi fleet.
When gasoline prices hovered around $4 a gallon last summer, the council approved a temporary $1-per-fare fuel surcharge. This was the second $1 surcharge that had been levied; the first had been approved in 2004. With a standard minimum fee of $2.50 each time the meter was "dropped," the surcharges meant taxi passengers paid a minimum of $4.50 before the cabbie even pulled away from the curb. Naturally, when gas prices fell, riders wanted the "temporary" surcharges to fall away, too.
In April, the City Council re-examined the fee and decided to knock off the 2008 fuel surcharge — but then it eliminated the 2004 surcharge as well, dropping the minimum for a New Orleans cab ride from $4.50 to $2.50. Not surprisingly, cabbies squawked. They were right to do so.
The minimum fare for a New Orleans cab ride was last adjusted in April 2000, when the "drop fee" went from $2.10 to $2.50. Though the per-mile rate rose slightly in 2002, that's nine years without a change in minimum fare. Keep in mind, the average cost of gasoline in 2000 was about $1.50 a gallon.
Besides paying for fuel, cab drivers have other expenses. If they own their hack, they're responsible for maintenance and taxi insurance, which costs considerably more than an average noncommercial policy. Cabbies who don't operate their own vehicles pay rental fees for the use of their cabs. In the face of those costs, a $2-per-ride pay cut adds up quickly. If drivers get only two fares an hour in an eight-hour shift, the surcharge elimination means an immediate $160-per-week shortfall just as the slow summer season begins. For drivers in the French Quarter and Central Business District, who average far more than two fares an hour, the hit will be harder. Worse news: The average price for gas is rising; it jumped 16 cents a gallon in the first week of May to a six-month high. The Energy Department previously estimated gasoline would top out at $2.23 a gallon this summer, but that projection now seems conservative. Combined with the loss of the surcharges, this is a perfect — and perfectly bad — economic storm for New Orleans cabbies.
There's an obvious solution, and it was presented late last month to Councilmembers Cynthia Willard-Lewis, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and James Carter, the city's Ground Transportation and Parking Committee, which oversees taxi fees. Eliminate the surcharge game and raise the drop fee by a dollar, making it $3.50.
We support this idea. It will help cab drivers, and it should give passengers a break because they'll still be paying $1 less than they were paying a month ago. Last, it takes surcharges off the table, which should only be used during fuel emergencies and shouldn't be counted on by cabbies as a way to augment their incomes.
San Francisco and Las Vegas, two other cities with heavy tourism and service-industry economies, already charge more than $3 for the initial drop fare. Even Washington, D.C., which was infamous for its tourist-confusing "zone-based" approach to taxi charges, simplified its fares in 2008 by going to a more straightforward system of charging by the meter — and establishing a $3 base rate in the process.
With public transportation still lagging in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a cab is often the only way for some New Orleanians to get around. Taxicabs serve as a lifeline for those without a car, as ambassadors for visitors to the city and, sadly, as an inexpensive form of life insurance for those who have to travel late at night or through unsafe neighborhoods. Whether you're a service worker heading home at night with a pocketful of cash or just someone who's had too much to drink, you've been the recipient of more than just a ride from a New Orleans cabbie. They perform a vital service. Let's make sure they stay in business.