- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

Commuters and residents trying to hail a taxi yesterday waited about 30 minutes longer than usual because of a strike by cabdrivers upset about an impending change in the fare system.

“Normally, we could take the Metro … and walk several blocks,” said Nona Smith, who came from Unionville, Pa., and hoped to have dinner in Dupont Circle. “But I have a bad back right now, so the strike is a little bit of an issue.”

About 7,500 cabdrivers operate in the city, but exactly how many stayed home was not known.

Nathan Price, a spokesman for the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, which helped organize the work stoppage, estimated that 4,000 cabbies were on strike.

“I know we have” gotten our point across, he said. “We may do it again.”

However, Leon Swain Jr., chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, estimated early yesterday afternoon that roughly one-third of the drivers were striking.

“That still gives us more taxicabs on the street than Boston,” he said. “So, we’re doing fine.”

At Union Station, the city’s Amtrak stop and a Metro hub, the line of morning commuters was about 12 deep. By noon, the number had dwindled to two or three, but so had the number of taxis.

Cabs also were hard to find outside D.C. hotels, where doormen were helping guests into limousines and airport shuttles.

“Business is slow,” said Gideon Mesfin, a doorman at the Washington Court Hotel on New Jersey Avenue Northwest, around the corner from Union Station.

Cab companies from specific counties in Maryland and Virginia are allowed only to make prearranged pickups inside the District. Union Station attendant Sam Kelsey was turning away some of them despite the shortage.

The effect of the 24-hour strike, which began at 6 a.m., was expected to hit late last night when Halloween revelers in Adams Morgan, Georgetown and other nightspots looked for cabs outside bars after last call.

But throughout the evening, empty cabs were seen on those streets.

Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said there had been no problems “so far” getting cabs for partiers who had had too much to drink.

WRAP’s Sober Ride program began at 8 p.m., and in its first three hours had given free cab rides home to 48 persons, 29 of them in the District.

WRAP contracted with Taxi Transportation Services, which assured Mr. Erickson that cabbies who had been off the streets earlier would show up in the evening because they did not want “to give up the profitability of Halloween night.”

“And that turned out to be true. There have been absolutely no problems,” Mr. Erickson said. “Drivers realize that this is a big tip night.”

The Metropolitan Police Department was urging people to act responsibly.

“We’re going to be out there enforcing the law,” said Officer Israel James, a department spokesman. “We hope people act maturely and do the right thing.”

Area airports were affected less because they are outside the District.

At noon, about 45 cabs were at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington.

“We haven’t heard of any operational issues,” said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

The strike, led by such organizations as the Taxicab Industry Group and Mr. Price’s association, was called to protest Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s Oct. 17 decision to switch from the zone-fare system to the time-and-distance meter system used in other major cities.

Mr. Price said cabdrivers want voters to make the decision. The change to a meter system, he said, will benefit large cab companies and result in higher fares because of the District’s notorious gridlock.

George Pakidis, vice president of operations for Red Top Cab in Arlington, said his company encouraged drivers who normally work later shifts to start driving earlier yesterday to help with an expected backlog of customer calls.

But the calls never came.

“It’s so quiet, it’s almost disappointing,” Mr. Pakidis said. “It has not impacted us at all, other than we have a good spot of drivers ready.”

Roy D. Spooner, general manager of Yellow Cab Co. of D.C., said most of his company’s drivers seemed to be taking part in the strike.

The company has a fleet of 600 cabs, though only 300 of them can be tracked from the main office.

“We’re at about 25 percent strength right now,” he said.

Jerry Schaeffer, manager of a garage on Benning Road Northeast that helps service cabs for roughly 15 companies, said about 30 percent of drivers were working.

“Some of them are working; some of them are not,” he said. “Most of them are not.”

Arlo Wagner and Joseph Weber contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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