Cab drivers seek industry update

By Kaley Fowler

Both Chicago taxi drivers and city officials agree that the city’s taxi industry is overdue for an update. But which aspects of the industry that update should address is where agreement between the two parties ends.

On Dec. 14, in an effort to “increase safety and bring Chicago’s taxi fleet into the 21st century,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Anthony Beale (9th Ward) introduced a series of proposed changes to Chicago’s taxi ordinance. If implemented, the changes will reform many aspects of the industry, including vehicle specifications and safety standards for drivers.

Just days after Emanuel and Beale announced their proposed amendments, Thaddeus Budzynski, a 24-year veteran of Chicago’s taxi industry, submitted his own proposal to the City Council. His petition, endorsed by 1,500 of the city’s cab drivers, included a drastic 22 percent hike in cab fare. This is the sixth petition for a fare increase Budzynski has submitted to the City Council since 2005, the last time the city granted a fare increase.

“It is time, after six years, to get a fare increase,” Budzynski said. “The city is saying it’s too high, but if we would have had small fare increases [during the last six years] it would equal the 22 percent we are asking for today.”

The petition also seeks to impose a $1.50 convenience charge for credit cards, a $50 fee for use of a fraudulent credit card and a $75 fee for vomit clean-up.

While Budzynski and his supporters insist that an immediate fare increase is necessary, the city is hesitant to agree to introduce a fare hike until its own demands are satisfied.

“It’s good for everybody if cabs are safer and cleaner, and that’s where the reforms are coming from,” said Jen Lipford, public relations director at the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. “If the industry cleans up and makes the experience better, then that’s a time to talk about fare increases.”

Tom Alexander, spokesman for the mayor, explained that this process of “cleaning up” the taxi industry includes incentives for cab companies to upgrade their fleet by allowing them to charge drivers higher lease rates for greener, more fuel-efficient vehicles. According to a press release from Emanuel’s office, upgrading to these newer vehicles will also “result in significant fuel savings for drivers.”

Although the owners of cab companies are incentivized to upgrade their vehicles in compliance with the city’s proposed reforms, Budzynski said Chicago’s 13,000 cab drivers would end up profiting little from the transition.

“Having the cab companies get hybrid cars so the drivers can save money on gas is unreal,” Budzynski said. “That is like me going up to somebody and saying, ‘You want a raise? Cut off your electricity and use candles. Then the money you save will be your raise.’”

Despite such pleas from drivers like Budzynski, many city officials remain adamant that industry reform must happen before they endorse any sort of rate increase.“Putting into place things that will clean up the cab industry and make it better all around will make it easier to get a fare increase,” Lipford said.

Other terms of the city’s proposed changes include more comprehensive driver training with a greater focus on safety and limiting drivers to no more than 12 hours of driving on the clock daily. Installation of GPS technology and swipe credit card machines in all vehicles would also become mandatory under the provisions. Furthermore, any driver with more than three moving violations within a 12-month period would be denied renewal of his or her chauffeur’s license.

A hearing in regard to the city’s proposal will be held on Jan. 18 at City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St. Meanwhile, the City Council will review the taxi drivers’ petition once all of the 1,500 signatures have been verified; up to 60 days from the time of Budzynski’s Dec. 15 submission.