The Columbus city council will take public comments at a meeting Thursday afternoon about whether to raise taxi cab fares. Supporters point out that there hasn't been a fare increase in more than six years. It's long overdue, they say, especially since the sharp increase in gasoline prices. But how important are cabs to the city?
There are 500 taxi cabs licensed to operate on the streets of Columbus. Their number is regulated by the city's public safety department. By contrast, 12-thousand taxis cruise the streets and sometimes tie-up traffic in New York City. Industry insiders say the Big Apple is a taxi cab town. Columbus, on the other hand, probably not.
"In New York City everybody takes a cab. You think nothing of hailing a cab, getting in it, going five or six blocks - or 10 or 20 blocks to your destination," says Jim Stofer, president of Yellow Cab Company in Columbus which has 127 of the city's cab licenses.
"In Columbus, it's the opposite. People live in the suburbs, out beyond the outer belt, and they drive to work and they may or may not take a cab when they need to go somewhere during the day. They're just as likely to drive to lunch as they are to take a cab."
The 500 cabs that troll Columbus streets are often used by visitors. That means most taxi cab service is centered around the airport, the convention center, area hotels and the bus station. Asheber Belayneh represents a group of independent cab drivers in Columbus. He says drivers often make the first impression on visitors to the city.
"It's very, very important. You know the cab drivers are providing professional services, we are acting like ambassadors," Belayneh says. "When people come to visit Columbus, business people come to Columbus, they're bringing money to Columbus. I think we're doing a good job and customers are appreciating our services."
But the city appears to be less appreciative. It's tough enough being a cabbie, with an income based upon a fluctuating number of fares. And city regulations, according to Yellow Cab's Jim Stofer, sometimes inhibit a more lucrative business. The police discourage cabs from cruising slowly, and if a driver stops to pick up a passenger and ties up traffic, Stofer says, he'll get a ticket. Stofer says the city also does not set aside enough parking spaces for taxis, which he says has been a problem for years.
"If you want more cabs downtown, you've got to provide more places to park," Stofer says. "It's not like New York where you can drive a block and somebody can hail you and get in your cab and take a trip. You need to be in a set location where people can find you. This would be around the big hotels downtown, around the convention center, around the arena, the Short North, the restaurant groupings."
Some Columbus residents - the elderly, people with disabilities, students, and the poor - also depend on cab service out of necessity. Independent cab representative Asheber Belayneh.
"There is no streetcar, there is no train and the bus service is doing adequately but the population is increasing. And as long as it is, I think they'll use more taxi services."
Belayneh says his drivers favor a fare increase, especially since they must pay increased price of fuel out of their own pockets. Jim Stofer agrees.
"It's like any other business," Stofer says. If the driver doesn't make any money, he's not going to do it. And it's getting to the point now where the drivers can't make any money if they're putting $40, $50, $60 a day in fuel in these cars, it's simply impossible. And we're going to lose good ole-time drivers who've been doing this for 15, 20 years and we're not going to get new ones."
Even if the city council approves a fare increase, Stofer says Columbus's rates will remain competitive with cities such as Indianapolis. Asheber Belayneh says the new rate would only be a mandatory ceiling and that some drivers might choose to maintain the current rate to attract more business.
The public hearing begins at 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon in council chambers at city hall.