Cabbies worry voter referendum could kill proposed fare hike

December 9, 2013

(Flickr/noboundaries.org)
Chicago cab fares have not kept pace with inflation, so many taxi drivers have been lobbying for a rate increase. The city will put that question to voters in a March referendum

Chicagoans will be able to weigh in on whether they think the city should increase cab fare rates – an issue that cab drivers have been pushing for years now. But rather than see this as a promising move forward, taxi drivers say the referendum could amount to a death wish for their cause.

“Who wants anything increased?” said George Kasp, a Chicago cab driver of forty years. “Food prices? Taxes? Taxi rates? Nobody wants to see increases.”

Kasp proposed a citizen’s ordinance in April to increase fares 13 percent, but it has stalled. He says putting the issue to voters instead doesn’t make sense.

“I think there’s more important issues to put on a referendum than asking if cab drivers need a meter rate increase,” he said.

The exact wording of the referendum gives voters a sense of cabbies’ longstanding complaint: “Should the City of Chicago increase taxi rates, which would be the first increase in eight years and bring Chicago's taxi fleet in line with other cities?”

The economics of the cab business have undergone significant shifts in the last decade. Almost a year ago, the city made a one-dollar fuel surcharge on fares permanent. It also increased the maximum amount that cab owners may charge drivers to lease their vehicles.

Meanwhile, many cabbies are using more fuel-efficient vehicles. But they cite the the shortage of drivers, roughly 2,000 by the city’s estimate, as evidence that the economics of the job are not attractive to potential recruits. They argue that higher rates could fix that.

“We do understand that it’s hard times for everybody, so we have to be conscious not only of the cab drivers, but the people who are paying for these cabs on a day-to-day basis,” said Alderman Anthony Beale (9th).

Beale chairs the City Council’s Transportation Committee and sponsored the resolution behind the referendum.

Beale said the referendum is non-binding – so whatever voters choose will not necessarily be the decision that the City Council follows. Still, Beale said voter opinion is a critical piece of information that city officials must know before taking any action.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.