Cab drivers seek fare increase

By SpencerRoush

Drinking too much and stumbling out of a bar at closing time to hail a cab is common for many college students who enjoy late-night partying. However, the possible $50 clean-up fee for extraordinary messes may come as a surprise to some.

During a City Council meeting on Sept. 24, cab drivers asked for a 22 percent increase to the current flag fee of $2.25. They are also asking for an additional 30 cents more per mile to the current $1.80 fee and want to add charges for services they currently provide for free.

“We haven’t heard anything from the City Council, but I’m sure they’ll consider it and I think that the argument we made has a lot of merit,” said George Lutfallah, a driver and publisher for the Chicago Dispatcher, a newspaper for taxi drivers. “Hopefully it’s compelling enough for the City Council to realize that it would be a good time for the fare increase.”

Lutfallah was at the City Council meeting to promote these fare increases and new surcharges, which include $1 for a phone dispatch, $1.50 to use a credit card, $1 to take rides to and from McCormick Place and a $50 clean-up fee for spills and vomit.

“It’s been 4 1/2 since the last fare increase and costs have gone up since then for drivers, not just the gasoline, but also the cost of living,” Lutfallah said.

He said he doesn’t want to stop college students from using taxis because of the new plan to raise fares and has considered offering student rates.

“I’d love it if the city were to subsidize fares for college students and people with low income,” Lutfallah said. “We really don’t want to hurt college students and I know students that frequent bars definitely depend on taxicabs.”

Joe Mullen, a senior marketing major at Columbia, said all of his friends take taxis home from bars every time they go out. Even though they don’t want to pay for the new fare increase, they will probably still take cabs.

There are some people who criticize the fare increase plan because the higher costs could make Chicagoans moreinclined to take public transportation.

Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois and author of “Driven Into Poverty: A Comprehensive Study of the Chicago Taxicab Industry,” said because the economic downturn has caused the number of fares to decline, driver’s fees and cab upkeep have increased.

Bruno’s study was distributed to the aldermen so they could see that Chicago cab drivers make $5 an hour after their expenses for gas and leases are taken out.

“One of the concerns that you always have if you ask for an increase is, ‘What kind of impact will that have on ridership?’” Lutfallah said. “That’s a very fair question.  A lot of drivers are concerned about that, but I think that at this point,  if you look at our fares compared to other cities, we are among the lowest.”

Steve Wiedersburg,  a cab driver with 27 years of experience, said he lost tips because of the $1 surcharge when gas prices went up.  He said if the fare increase is approved, it could lead to a reduction in ridership and less overall income for cab drivers.

“I think it’s crazy right now,” Wiedersburg said. “That’s the same thing they asked two or three years ago. You are not going to get 22 percent right now.  Everybody would be outraged.  I really do believe that if cab drivers got a 22 percent increase, there would be a severe backlash against cab drivers.”

Wiedersburg said he does agree with some of the other charges,  including the $1.50 charge for credit card use and the $50 clean-up fee.

“Credit cards are terrible, it takes a while to get paid with a credit card,” Wiedersburg said. “This month I’ve gotten two bad credit cards and over $100 in losses. I hate credit cards with a passion, but the city mandates them. I think they should be optional.”

Wiedersburg said passengers should say they are paying with a credit card before they tell the driver their destination spot because the credit card machine may not be operating properly.

“I got a bogus credit card last night from a lady,” Wiedersburg said. “I had to take down the [credit card number] manually because the machine was down and she wrote down a bogus credit card number, so I ended up losing $38. It all adds up and you get mad and people wonder why drivers don’t want to take credit cards.”

Wiedersburg said he also loses money when passengers spill something or vomit because it can cost a lot to get the interior cleaned. He said he recently paid close to $100 after someone threw up in his cab.

“If you get sick in a cab or been drinking too much, ask the driver to stop,” he said. “If he can’t, hang your head out the window. It’s easier to get the outside cleaned, but the inside costs a lot.”

Mullen said he has had many friends who have vomited in taxis and the recourse has been to get out of the cab and pay the full fare or just to get out of the cab, even if you haven’t reached your destination.

“A cab is a work station and if that environment isn’t healthy, it puts the fare at risk and it makes the work station unusable,” Bruno said. “That driver has got to stop working, then they have to pay to get it cleaned, so there is income loss there.”