Report calls for fare hikes in The City

San Francisco taxi fares should go up to compensate for higher gas prices and inflation, according to a report by the Office of the Controller.

The Taxicab Industry Report, released Friday, recommends raising fares by 25 cents a mile to cover rising gas prices in addition to an 8.2 percent fare hike to subdue cost-of-living increases.

A fuel surcharge must first receive approval by the Board of Supervisors while the inflation-related hike may take effect in November.

Some drivers fear that raising prices will hurt business. A five-mile cab ride in San Francisco already costs more than in Chicago, Houston, New York and Los Angeles, according to the report.

“I would say that it’s not a good idea to increase,” said driver Thomas George-Williams, chair of United Taxicab Workers. “We are one of the most expensive in the country.”

Drivers are making less than they did a few years ago, George-Williams said, in part due to BART’s expansion to San Francisco International Airport three years ago. BART expects 2.7 million airport passengers on the extension line this year, the report shows, an increase of 7.6 percent from last year.

Prior to BART’s expansion, a driver could earn $130 on a fare from Dublin to the airport, George-Williams said. Now, those fares have evaporated and drivers have fewer pickups at the airport.

Still, the report points to 2005 as one of the most successful in recent memory for cab companies. The number of taxi companies that failed to turn a profit last year dropped to 31.3 percent as compared with 34.5 percent in 2004 and 38.9 percent in 2001.

The companies in some cases are charging excessive gate fees — the price a driver must pay to take a cab out for a 10-hour shift — according to the report. The fee is currently capped at $85, while some drivers are charged more than that, the report finds. The controller’s analysis argues that the Taxi Commission must seek to enforce those rules.

The embattled commission meets Tuesday, when its executive director, Heidi Machen, will lead the group for the first time since she was fired June 28. Machen, a former aide to Mayor Gavin Newsom, was reinstated last month after three commission members were replaced. The commission is charged with regulating the industry that provides nearly 50,000 trips each day. About one-eighth of the drivers hold permits, which some believe creates a two-tier system.

The city’s 1,381 permit holders earned more than in prior years, the report finds. Each of the permits, or medallions, grossed an average of $54,990 last year, up from $45,324 in 2004. In 2001, the average was $45,434. On average, they receive $1,900 a month in leasing fees for the use of their medallions, according to the controller’s report.

If medallion owners charged less for the use of their medallions, average cab fares would decrease, cab driver Tariq Mehmood said.

“Cab companies are paying half their income to medallion holders,” Mehmood said. “Instead of asking the public to pay, give less to the medallion owners.”

The medallion owners who received theirs after 1978 are required to drive 800 hours a year. The valuable permits can currently only be sought by adding one’s name to a list kept by The City. They cannot be purchased.

Medallion owner Art Lembke, who received his medallion before current permit laws were in place, paid for his medallion and drove for 25 years. He said he is entitled to the permit.

“Do they think we shouldn’t get retirement?” Lembke said. “A politician can draw four retirements. But we can’t retire?”

mcarroll@examiner.com

Bay Area NewsLocal

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