2008-07-17 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Hard-Working Hackies Deserve $1 Fuel Surcharge
By Neil S. Friedman

While almost everyone has been experiencing direct and residual financial effects from rising fuel prices, New York City taxi drivers have to be among those suffering the most. Working 12-14 hour daily shifts, more often than not, they put up with heavily congested Manhattan thoroughfares - before, during and after rush hour - in all kinds of weather, which is grueling enough, in order to make ends meet. Since gas prices have drastically increased (more than a buck a gallon since last summer), New York cabbies are hacking for a smaller piece of the pie.

Therefore, those who prefer the convenience, comfort and pace of a yellow taxicab, compared to packed, slow moving buses or waiting on stifling subway platforms, should share the burden of higher prices. And the city should have a little compassion for those that provide a valuable service to business people and tourists.

Recently, a group representing more than 11,000 yellow cab drivers petitioned the Taxi and Limousine Commission to implement a $1-per-ride fuel surcharge to offset what is likely their biggest daily expense. The Taxi Workers Alliance claims drivers use about 20 gallons per shift and are losing more than $1,000-a-month since gas prices broke the four-dollar level. Nevertheless, their request was flatly turned down.

The numbskulls at TLC maintained that a fuel increase was "factored in" when the fare was increased 26 percent four years ago. But, back then gas was a measly $1.80 a gallon! The TLC also denied drivers a surcharge when prices rose three years ago after Hurricane Katrina reduced oil refinery output.

TLC chairman Matthew Daus denied the surcharge request because, he said, taxi fares had gone up in 2004 and in 2006, but promised "to monitor the situation." It should be pointed out that a percentage of the first increase went to medallion and fleet owners, so drivers, who lease the cabs from them, did not completely benefit.

New York's taxi industry is made up of several divisions. The most profitable are fleet owners, who own from a few to dozens of cabs; independent owner-operators, who work long and hard to pay off medallions that may cost upwards of $300,000; and drivers who lease daily from fleet operations. The latter group, which consists of the bulk of city cabbies, has fees and other charges to pay to owners each shift. That typically includes a large percentage for leasing the car, a charge for the radio equipment and insurance, plus a tank of gas for $80. That cost jumps when drivers run air-conditioners for passengers' comfort. At the end of the day, a driver is lucky to take home 60 percent of what he/she collected from fares and tips during a single shift.

Mayor Bloomberg, who tends to give the impression he cares little for the plight of working stiffs in these situations, naturally agreed with the TLC and called on drivers to urge cab company owners to purchase hybrid and other more fuel-efficient vehicles. The majority of today's yellow cabs are sturdy, roomy, gas-guzzling Ford Crown Victorias that average less than 12 miles per gallon in city traffic. The TLC said that 10 percent of city taxis are already hybrid vehicles.

Yesterday the mayor and the TLC announced that three automobile manufacturers (Nissan, General Motos and Ford)) have committed to delivering 300 hybrid vehicles per month exclusively for use in the New York City yellow taxi fleet.

Bloomberg's bold, innovative efforts to reduce pollution and make the city "greener" with a host of current programs and long-term proposals are commendable, but ever since his unwelcome congested pricing plan was rejected in Albany, he has sought alternatives that will apparently bolster the city's treasury more than clear the city's air quality. His most recent idea is to double the charge for parking meters in certain city neighborhoods - which could range from $1.50 to as much as $2.50 an hour - at certain times sound like nothing more than a congestion parking plan that could adversely affect small, local businesses.

City cab drivers are burdened by a stereotype that portrays them as impolite, garrulous, speed demons, who dispense opinions on everything from politics to sports and weather to religion. While one or even all of those characteristics may be valid for some drivers, they, nonetheless, struggle for their tiny share of the American Dream, and deserve the buck-a-ride add-on.

I admittedly have a soft spot for cabbies. My late father toiled at the trade in a massive yellow Checker cab for nearly 20 years before retiring and moving to Florida with my mother 30 years ago.

Today's cab drivers, at least 90 percent who are immigrants, work hard at a tedious job to make a better life for themselves and their families. What would it hurt if the TLC - with the mayor's reluctant blessing - gave them a one-dollar fuel surcharge as they hack it day after day for those who opt for the convenience of a taxi so they can steer clear of New York City's out-of-date transit system?

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