S.F. cab fares could rise again 

For the second time in a year, the price of just stepping into a taxicab could increase.

Five months ago, San Francisco increased the cost of the so-called flag drop, the charge at which drivers start the meter, by 25 cents — riders were hit with a $3.10 charge just for stepping into a cab. It became the second highest flag drop in the nation, only 10 cents behind the flag drop of Las Vegas cabs.

At the time, the Board of Supervisors approved the flag drop increase with the agreement that the Taxicab Commission would submit by April 1 a plan to provide health care for The City’s more than 7,000 cabdrivers, who do not receive health care benefits from employers.

The Taxicab Commission set up a working group to draft a report on how to implement a health care plan. That report, which came out on Friday, recommends all the stakeholders contribute to the health care, including the riders. The report supports a flag drop of $3.60, a 50-cent increase.

The recommended increase follows a scathing report released last month that found taxi service to be slow and unreliable. The report prompted the Taxicab Commission to add 50 more cabs to the city streets.

Last year, Mayor Gavin Newsom opposed any meter increases. "I believe that increasing taxi fares will discourage local residents from using taxis, which represent an important part of our city’s Transit First policy," he said. "Additionally, fare hikes increasingly make taxis accessible only to the wealthy in our city."

Taxicab Commission Executive Director Heidi Machen said there is no indication that the 25-cent flag drop increase has hurt the taxi industry and that it could likely withstand another 50-cent hike.

"Bay Areans are fairly cost-insensitive when choosing their preferred choice of transit," Machen said.

Taxicab Commissioner Malcolm Heinicke, who had yet to review the report, said, "My initial inclination is to resist any increase in fares absent of a very strong reason to impose them. We already have a relatively high fee structure."

Taxicab Commission Chairman Paul Gillespie, who is also a cabdriver, plans on proposing a different method for paying for cabdrivers’ health care. He said those costs should be paid for through a "mandate of hybrid taxis, using the savings in fuel to pay for health care and to subsidize the purchase of the hybrids." His proposal includes the stipulation that the gate fee, the charge drivers pay companies to drive a cab per shift, increase by about $15. Gillespie said he believes his proposal could find support because it incorporates Newsom’s goal, as stated in his October 2006 State of the City address, to make every city cab a hybrid, alternative fuel or other green vehicle by 2011.

Machen said Gillespie’s proposal wouldn’t result in driver health care for at least two to three years.

The Taxicab Commission will hold a hearing Tuesday on the recommendations developed by the Taxi Drivers’ Health Care Working Group but may end up not taking any action until its next meeting March 27.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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