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Green taxi program riles cabbies

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Chicago’s push for cleaner-fuel cabs has won praise for drastically changing the makeup of the city’s taxi fleet, but not from some cabbies.

The city’s approach has been to give incentives to cab owners and drivers to switch to lower-emission vehicles. However, the program has left some cab drivers fuming, particularly over incentives to put natural gas vehicles on the road. Sandra Videkic is one of them.

On a weekday afternoon, Videkic was at O’Hare Airport and just spent an hour-and-a-half waiting in a parking lot with about 600 cabs. This is what cab drivers do every time they go to the airport: they wait in lines at the lot – for hours – until they’re called up to a terminal to finally pick up a fare. But last year, the city turned that system on its head.

“CNG drivers – it’s the natural gas vehicles - they have preference to go, they don’t have to wait like the rest of us,” said Videkic. “They just go in, picking up the customers. While we still wait, they go to downtown, come back again, pick up another customer, while we’re still waiting here.”

To understand what’s going on, you have to know a little about Chicago’s Green Taxi Program.  The city wants to replace old, carbon-emitting cabs for newer, cleaner-fuel vehicles. It’s put nearly a thousand hybrids on the road, and it wants more taxis that run on compressed natural gas – the same gas that burns on stoves.

So it introduced some incentives. One was for cab owners: it offered federal subsidies to buy CNG vehicles, or to convert existing taxis to natural gas. But at the beginning drivers wouldn’t go near them. “Not being able to get to a gas station on every corner, like you can with a gasoline vehicle, would make them a little more nervous,” explained Rosemary Krimbel, Commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Krimbel’s department came up with this idea: cab drivers who lease CNG cars could cut to the front of the line at the airports, without waiting in the lot. This was a sweet deal. Picking up an airport fare that goes downtown lets you pocket $40. And it worked.

Take Max Johnson, who’s been driving a CNG for three months. Before that, Johnson drove a regular gasoline taxi. He was filling up around lunchtime recently at one of only two public CNG fueling stations downtown, and he explained why he made the switch.

“I did it because you can go through the short trip at the airport,” said Johnson. “Also the gas is a lot cheaper too.”  At this station, Johnson paid $2.65 for the equivalent of a gallon. Johnson said the switch to CNG completely changed how and where he drives to make money. For one thing, he goes to the airport a lot more. “In a week... it’s more like three (times) a day now,” said Johnson. “I can do at least three or four a day, whereas before I might be able to get one or two in a day.”

This is exactly what ticks off Videkic and other drivers. They say CNGs are making more and more trips to the airport, “stealing” their fares.

Johnson says he gets that gripe. “I used to be one of those drivers. I used to sit there and watch the CNG cars go by, and opportunity came up,” he said. “My company started getting CNGs, I noticed it, I asked it, they were just like put your name on the list, and when your name comes up, you can  get one.”

That’s the other thing about this program is that there aren’t enough CNG cabs to go around. The city started the airport incentive August last  year. That month there were only 14 CNG cabs in the fleet. Today, there are 282, and drivers are clamoring for more.

It’s easy to see why. I did the math with one CNG driver.  Between lower gas prices and more frequent airport trips, he’s pulling in 400 dollars more per week than he did with a gasoline vehicle.

Other cabbies look at that and say it’s totally unfair. They say he’s just a regular cab driver like us, he leases his vehicle like us, so, why is it OK for him to make more money in less time?

“It may be perceived as unfair,” said Commissioner Krimbel, “but I will tell you, to be perfectly honest, I’m rather impressed by the business acumen of those drivers.”

So what will happen when there are so many CNGs in the fleet that the airport incentive stops? Will drivers still want those cars?

“If they stop the drive-through, I am going to drop the car,” said Babatunde Dada, another CNG cab driver. Dada says there are two problems with the CNGs: first, there aren’t enough fueling stations, so he can’t take fares to far away places if he can’t find fuel on his way back. Second, the existing fueling pumps are often broken.

“So the only incentive I have right now is if I go to O’Hare I can drive through,” said Dada. “So if they stop it, I drop this (censored).”

Commissioner Krimbel says that’s not a problem, because there are so many licensed public chauffeurs in Chicago that somebody would take those cars. But the city’s not actively addressing the hangup that kept cabbies from taking CNGs in the beginning: not enough fueling stations.

In the meantime, Chicago recently renewed the airport incentive. It’s causing a headache at the airport.

“The CNGs, they’re killing us,” said an airport attendant at O’Hare who directs cabs coming to the airport terminals. WBEZ is not using his name because he was not authorized by his department to speak with the media. “I  don’t bother even checking them no more, because there are so many,” he said.

Airport attendants are supposed to check on every cab that claims to be a CNG before letting them through the short trip lane. But with so many of these cars coming through these days, this attendant said his concern is to keep the flow going, and that there’s no time to check them.

“We have to hold the shorts because there are so many CNGs,” he explained. “Stop everything from coming into the terminals, because this terminal is overloaded. We cannot overload the terminals.”

The pilot program will expire in December, but Videkic and others want it to stop it sooner. They’ve put together a petition, and they’re thinking of filing a lawsuit for lost wages.

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