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Cries of Rip-Off Drive Taxi Officials to Ask Uniform Rate

Times Staff Writer

With the tourist trade continuing to boom in San Diego and the first convention scheduled in January for the new convention center, local government and taxi industry officials are pushing for a uniform fare rate for cab companies.

San Diego is the only major city in California that does not have uniform taxi rates. Since 1979, when the industry was deregulated, cab companies have used a variable-rate system that has brought howls of protest from tourists and locals alike.

However, the variable rates that were supposed to spur competition have also sown confusion and tarnished San Diego’s image, local officials said. Despite a decade of deregulation, local transportation officials say they are amazed at how few San Diegans realize that they can shop around for cab fares.

“We keep getting complaints from people, many of them tourists, who think they’re getting ripped off,” said Anthony Palmeri, a Yellow Cab Co. official. “I can understand their confusion. They get a cab at the airport and go to Mission Valley for about $14. Then they take another cab to the airport for about $12. They think they were gouged the first time.”

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“The cost from point A to point B should be the same as the cost from point B to point A,” Palmeri added. Yellow Cab is the largest taxi company in the city, with 282 cabs.

Barbara Lupro, paratransit regulatory administrator for the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, said the transportation agency is sponsoring a monthlong survey of about 1,500 cab patrons beginning Monday that will gauge the public’s perception of cab fares. The MTDB, which assumed regulation of the taxi industry last year, hopes that the study will provide more information about the issue of uniform cab fares.

According to Lupro, MTDB officials will analyze the study’s findings and schedule a public hearing in the fall before arriving at a decision. She said MTDB officials feel that the variable-rate system is working fine but decided to re-examine it after receiving complaints from airport officials and calls for uniform rates from some cab companies.

“We have felt that the existing system was working OK,” Lupro said. “Our office did not receive complaints that (the variable-rate system) was a problem. But the (taxi) industry has indicated to us that they have received comments that it is a problem.”

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The complaints have also come from airport officials and the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis). Both groups are strong supporters of uniform rates.

“The present rate system has been a problem for many years. We receive complaints, but, to tell you the truth, we receive more complaints from local residents,” said Al Reese, spokesman for ConVis. “Primarily, people don’t understand that there are variable rates and they can shop for fares.”

Jerry Reas, transportation specialist for the San Diego Unified Port District, which administers the airport, said the existing fare system leads to several complaints every week from visitors.

“Passengers who visit San Diego infrequently take a cab out of the airport at one rate and come back in another cab with a different rate,” Reas said. “They feel they’re getting ripped off. We receive several complaints every week. Some people think it’s a crazy system. We don’t feel that this is a good system for a city that depends heavily on tourists.”

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But apparently there are enough airport travelers who know about shopping for cab fares to create minor traffic problems at Lindbergh Field.

“At an airport this size, we need to see that cabs move efficiently through the airport. The public can still shop for fares at the airport, but frankly, we hope they didn’t. Some people walk down the (taxi) line looking for the cheapest fare. We’d like to see them get into a cab and move out quickly,” Reas said.

San Diego’s postage-stamp size airport has grown increasingly busy over the past year, Reas added. Last year, cabdrivers averaged 660 trips daily out of Lindbergh Field. This year, drivers are averaging 830 trips daily, and holidays are always busier, he said.

Uniform rates are in the “best interest” of the airport and the cab industry, Reas added.

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“If the same rate was in effect, we could get people out of the airport quicker and move the cabs through the airport without causing massive traffic jams. Also, the faster that the cabs move out, the more trips that drivers will be able to make,” Reas said.

Lupro said the MTDB is also considering other fare options for the airport and nearby areas. One option is to have a uniform rate for cabs traveling from the airport and flat rates for different zones away from Lindbergh Field. However, she emphasized that these are merely proposals being studied, and a decision will not be made until after the public hearing.

Cab Owner Has Reservations

Although uniform rates are favored by an overwhelming majority of cab owners, Parviz Ibrahimi, owner of Coast Cab, expressed reservations about the proposal. Coast, which has 90 cabs, has some of the lowest fares in the city and has a customer base of about 2,000 people. Ibrahimi said most of his customers are senior citizens and people on fixed incomes.

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“Our customers give nickel tips, not dollars. A standard rate would hurt our customers because then I would be forced to increase my fares. This proposal will only hurt the poor. Nobody seems concerned about them. We are focusing too much on tourists and ignoring our poor people and senior citizens,” said Ibrahimi.

However, Alfredo Hueso, whose family owns USA Cab Ltd., a consortium of 92 cabs, argues that “it’s a misconception” that uniform rates would spell hardships for the poor.

“It won’t stop you from going after contracts. I’ve got two contracts where I take 25% off the meter and another where I take two-thirds off the meter. These are with organizations that help poor people. So, these possibilities are out there,” Hueso said. “The biggest benefit from having a uniform rate is that you won’t have the public screaming that they got overcharged.”

Last month, Hueso supervised an industry-sponsored survey that showed that patrons favor uniform rates. In the survey, 94 passengers were asked if they favored uniform rates with discounts for senior citizens and the poor. According to results of the survey, 78% approved of uniform rates with discounts. But, in response to a second question, asking customers whether they were satisfied with “the current rate structure,” 47% said no and 40% said yes.

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According to MTDB statistics, the current maximum rate permitted is $1.41 for the flag drop and $1.81 per mile. However, the average rate is $1.17 for the flag drop and $1.51 per mile. The lowest rate in the city is charged by Freedom Cab, which charges $1 for the flag drop and $1 per mile.

Coast Cab, which for years offered the best bargain in town, charges $1 for the flag drop and $1.20 per mile. Yellow Cab, the city’s biggest cab company, charges $1.20 for the flag drop and $1.60 per mile.

Fares are generally higher in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where uniform fares are used. In Los Angeles, the flag drop is $1.90, then $1.60 per mile is charged. In San Francisco, the flag drop rate is $1.40 and the rate per mile is $1.50.


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