Don’t bank on cheaper, safer D.C. taxicabs anytime soon.

To hear most D.C. cabbies tell it, cruising the District’s streets in a taxi looking for fares is one tough gig. There is the occupational hazard of robbery, assault, or worse. New regulations take effect April 1 requiring bulletproof partitions or other safety gear for all cabs, which will cost cab owners $300 or more. Then there are the potential fines and lawsuits when cabbies decide to ensure their safety in the old-fashioned (and illegal) way, by refusing rides to passengers they deem shady.

Hackin’, it appears, ain’t easy.

“Nobody’s allowing us to make money,” argues Nathan Price of the D.C. Professional Taxi Cab Drivers Association Inc. “Twenty years ago, this was one of the best taxi industries in the country. Now it’s one of the worst.”

Even when the District government takes measures to help them, hacks say, they are months late and a few coins short. When gas prices skyrocketed last spring, climbing 47 cents higher than they had been a year earlier, the D.C. Taxicab Commission pushed through a gas surcharge—but it was only half of the $1 extra that neighboring governments in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties allowed.

The commission later raised the surcharge twice, eventually boosting it to $1 per ride. But the hikes were just random enough to confuse or enrage passengers, who watched gas prices spike to average highs of $1.68 per gallon in July and then level off at $1.52. Gas prices went down; the surcharge went up. It wasn’t exactly a logical formula, unless you’re playing catch-up.

“D.C. moves so slowly,” admits Sandra Seegars, one of the more outspoken members of the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Seegars says she wanted a higher surcharge passed more quickly, but acknowledges that the initial 50-cent surcharge was tough enough to get through. “There were members of the commission complaining about 50 cents,” she says.

After a few months of reaping the $1 surcharge in a climate of lower gas prices, D.C. cabdrivers are looking ahead to a much less pleasant spring. The fuel surcharge will expire at midnight on April 10, with no imminent hike in the District’s zone-based fares to replace it.

Taxicab Commission Chair Lee E. Williams says that “the fuel surcharge was intended to be temporary. The [commission] already extended the fuel surcharge twice in response to driver concerns about rising costs.” The fuel surcharge is finished, Williams continues, but the commission “is now reviewing a number of other options for stabilizing operating costs and expects to take action soon.”

Meanwhile, on April 1, the new safety regulations spawned by ongoing violence against cabdrivers will finally take effect. Approved last May, the new mandates require that taxis be fitted with plastic shields, alarm systems, or digital video cameras. Yet cursory observation of the local taxi stock reveals that an overwhelming number of cabbies aren’t even close to making that deadline.

Seegars brought particular attention to the cab-safety issue in the District last January, when she made comments to the Washington Post about the hazards faced by cabdrivers who picked up “dangerous looking” passengers. Numerous public officials interpreted Seegars’ comments as racial profiling, and the issue ended up being aired at a hearing of the House of Representatives oversight subcommittee.

Asked about the coming safety-measure pinch for drivers, Seegars opines that “it’s best” to keep the April 1 deadline, but she sighs when asked if most hacks will make the required changes in the next five weeks. “I don’t see it,” says Seegars, who also complains that there is “no uniformity” in the safety standards being issued for cabs.

Price is even blunter. The new requirements, he argues, “are putting a cost on us that is burdensome.” He predicts that on April 10, when cabbies confront the reality of the new safety costs, the loss of the gas surcharge, and the still-distant prospect of an overall fare hike all at once, “it’s gonna be pandemonium.”

The noonday sun glistens overhead on a chilly day at Union Station. An assortment of cabs wait to reach the cab stand and lurch forward at the merest sign of movement in the line. Taxis wind their way down and around until they get to the pickup spot in front, where an attendant blows a whistle and eager passengers shuffle themselves and their luggage inside the car.

The drill is the same at any taxi stand in D.C., and so are the opinions on the line regarding the looming safety mandates and the end of the gas surcharge.

Despite the fact that the new safety regulations were ostensibly enacted to help drivers (along with increased penalties for assaults on cabdrivers passed by the D.C. Council in late December), the informal cost-benefit analysis among most hacks at Union Station on this day favors cash flow over life and limb.

Even cabbies who like the safety measures, such as Presidential Cab Co. driver Sukhdev Singh, think the cost of installation is a high price for cabbies to bear alone. “[The new safety mandate is] good for drivers,” says Singh, “but it’s very expensive, you know. Cabdrivers don’t want it because it’s very, very expensive.”

Tesfaye E. Tesfaye of Dial Cab Co. installed a partition in his vehicle five months ago. “It’s helpful to me,” says Tesfaye, “but the passengers aren’t used to it.” For instance, the partition makes it impossible for him to move the front seat forward to accomodate larger passengers. He also believes that the partition creates an unfriendly atmosphere.

Independent cabdriver Kwadwo Poku agrees. “It’s not friendly with the screen,” Poku argues. “It looks like prison. If anybody wants to harm you, they can do it through the window.” Even though he was the victim of a recent robbery, Poku says he is against the mandatory safety regulations.

Another veteran cabdriver waiting in line, who doesn’t want his name used, argues that one of the recommended safety measures—video cameras—won’t quell violence against cabdrivers: “If they gonna kill you, they gonna kill you. You got crackheads out here. The camera’s not going to stop them.” He’s more interested in a system advertised in a color brochure that he proffers to a reporter. The “LifeTrak DC-911” is a combination tracking and alarm system that can be activated by the driver. The device is available on a three-month installment plan at $105 a month, plus a $35 installation fee. The monthly service charge is $9.95, only a bit more than one five-zone fare. It seems cheap, by life-or-death standards.

A more fundamental cabdriver complaint has a firmer foundation. Gas surcharge or no, cabbies haven’t had a raise since 1996. Even more galling to them is the fact that a proposed 25 percent fare hike floated last spring was frozen in its tracks by the naming of the new chair of the Taxicab Commission.

“It was as if the world stopped,” Seegars says, “just because a new guy came in.” Another temporary 10-cent surcharge proposed last year to help cabdrivers pay for the mandated safety measures was also waylaid by the changes at the commission.

For his part, Williams rejects the charges of foot-dragging. “There’s a process,” he argues, adding that the rate increase is before the commission’s Panel on Rates and Rules. Williams adds that the 10-cent safety surcharge hasn’t been removed from the table, either.

The bottom line, however, is that the gradual rise in the fuel surcharge has essentially stood in lieu of the raise that was floated for D.C. hacks back in May 2000. Price argues, however, that with the temporary measure ending, on April 10, cabbies could be left in the lurch for months while proposed fare increases are placed before the public for discussion and comment.

“[The members of the Taxicab Commission] haven’t moved on that,” says Price of the proposed fare hike. “This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take three to four months. It might be August or September before we get it.” CP