The City Council's Committee on Transportation and the Public Way held what was billed as a hearing Wednesday to weigh the possibility of raising taxi fares. But it was hard not to conclude that the aldermen who showed up did so just to maintain the appearance of discussing the issue.
The proposed ordinance--which would hike fares to help boost the earnings of cabbies, many of whom are struggling to cover the surging cost of gas--was introduced by 40th Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor, but O'Connor wasn't there to advocate for the measure. Committee members Ray Suarez, Pat Dowell, Anthony Beale, James Balcer, Virginia Rugai, Ike Carothers, Brian Doherty, Eugene Schulter, and Brendan Reilly--whose downtown ward almost certainly has the most cab traffic--were no-shows as well. Only Manny Flores (1st), Pat Levar (45th), Ariel Reboyras (30th), Willie Cochran (20th), and Tom Allen (38th), the committee chairman, were in the house, and both Flores and Levar drifted in and out of the hearing.
"We want to hear testimony from those most directly affected," Allen said before a dozen cabbies described how they're having a hard time making ends meet.
"When I work 14 or 15 hours a day, I never make any money," said Nalmet Raza, a taxi driver for 26 years. "We aren't even making minimum wage when we work 16 hours."
Others said they could barely support their children when it cost $50 to $70 to fill up their tanks. "Sometimes I feel like a character in 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" said 31-year veteran Kenneth Cooper.
"The more we're spending on gas, the less we have for food," added Mohammad Ahmad, who's been driving since 2004.
This went on for close to an hour, and it's fair to say the response from members of the committee was muted. By my count, four questions were asked, all by Allen; two were requests that the witness repeat what he'd just said.
When it was over, Allen gravely declared, "We know this is an urgent manner," and then, a few moments later, said, "We're not going to act on this today." He said another hearing was necessary to make sure aldermen heard testimony from other interested parties, including representatives of the tourism and restaurant industries. He promised that he had listened to the cabbies but said he didn't know when the committee would hold another hearing or decide whether to advance the ordinance. He asked for specific numbers showing how much their costs had risen. He blamed the federal government for not doing more to help.
The meeting was adjourned, and reporters hurried over to ask Allen follow-up questions, such as: Didn't it sound bad out there for these drivers?
"Yes, we heard how bad it is out there," Allen said. "But we knew that."