Zoned-Out Taxi Riders to Finally Get Their Meters

Posted October 17, 2007 at 7:07pm

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) takes taxicabs all the time, but he still doesn’t fully understand the city’s fare system, where riders pay based on zones rather than distance.

Once, he says he shelled out $15 for a three-block ride.

“I don’t really have it figured out,” he said with a laugh. But the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia makes sure he’ll never be swindled twice, sometimes walking a few feet to catch a cab in a specific zone. “If you get me once, shame on you. Get me twice, then shame on me.”

It’s a sentiment shared by several Members who rely on cabs to ferry them around to meetings, fundraisers and floor votes. Luckily for them, the long-standing zone system won’t be around for long.

Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) announced Wednesday that all Washington, D.C., taxis will switch to meters, which will be based on the distance traveled and the time spent in traffic.

“District residents are overwhelmingly in favor of modernizing and simplifying the fare system,” Fenty said in a press release. “By switching to time and distance meters, we meet the needs of the residents and standardize the experience for every taxi passenger.”

The switch comes after years of debate — much of it on Capitol Hill. After all, many Members use cabs frequently, a practice that can get particularly expensive because the Capitol is perched almost directly on the boundary between two zones. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has long called for meters, finally pushed the issue last year by writing a provision that forced Fenty to make a decision by Wednesday.

It’s unfortunate that such Congressional intervention was needed, said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who has pushed numerous bills to give the city more independence from Congress. But she applauded the fact that Levin allowed Fenty to make the decision — rather than pushing his preference for meters.

“It is regrettable, after years of complaints from our own residents, that this issue was resolved only through a final push from a member of the Senate,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I have not looked at what the city’s investigation found but the steps the Mayor and his administration took by listening to residents, to cab drivers, to the taxi cab commission, and conducting citywide polls, amount to classic vindication of why self government works.”

The District of Columbia Taxicab Commission will decide how to make the transition and determine the cost, said Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman in the mayor’s office. That panel will meet in the next two weeks to formulate a plan for the more than 6,000 taxicabs that work in the city.

Several Members welcomed the shelving of a zone system that they said was confusing and ill-conceived. Washington, D.C., is the only city in the country with such a system.

“I’ve never understood the damn thing,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), after lauding the switch. “I think it’s a fair way to do it, and I think it’s long overdue.”

The city’s current fare system, in place for decades, is based on 23 zones circling the National Mall and the Capitol. Stay in the same zone for any distance, and you’ll pay the same flat rate. But cross into another zone, and the fare increases by a few dollars. That means that a Member or Hill staffer jumping in a cab for the five or six blocks to Eastern Market could end up paying close to $10, but the same rider can go all the way to U Street for little more than $6.

Under the meter system, the same trip to Eastern Market would cost about $5, while the average cost to U Street would be about $9, according to a study done by the D.C. Taxicab Commission. That same study found that the zone system is more expensive for shorter trips but cheaper for longer ones. So in some cases, it’s in the interest of most residents and workers on the Hill to switch to meters.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said the system is especially problematic whenever he wants to take a quick ride from his home on Third Street Northeast to the Capitol because he inevitably crosses a zone boundary on Second Street Northeast. Since he passes through two zones in the two or three blocks to the Capitol, he ends up paying about $9, not including tip.

It’s also a system, he said, that is unfriendly to anyone not from D.C.

“People who visit here, no one knows what the zones are,” he said.

But there’s at least one Member who will be sad to see zones go. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said he’s always enjoyed the straightforward flat rate of a zone system. Meters simply confuse the situation, he said.

“I’m kind of one of those zone guys myself,” he said in an interview at the Capitol. “If I’m going from here to The Caucus Room, I know it’s going to be eight bucks.”