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City Council helps cabdrivers without raising fares

Chicago taxicab fares have been frozen since 2005 — and that’s where they’ll stay, even though cabdrivers say they need all the help they can get in the fight for survival against ride-sharing.

The City Council made certain of it Wednesday by approving Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to boost the annual income of struggling Chicago cabdrivers by up to $8,000 without raising fares.

Instead of raising Chicago cab fares that currently rank No. 32 among big cities, the mayor’s plan calls for the city to create a centralized dispatch system using a “universal taxi smartphone application” akin to ride-sharing.

Lease rates, fines and credit card transaction fees that gobble up driver income also would be dramatically reduced.

Many of the ideas originated with the taxicab industry after hard-fought negotiations over a ride-sharing ordinance that, cabbies insist, does not go far enough to level the playing field that has siphoned away their business.

“We’ve kept the riders and consumers — whether it’s ride-share or the taxi industry — in mind. We haven’t increased fares. Yet, because of changing the rules, it’s resulted in more money in the hands of taxi drivers but protected consumers in that process,” Emanuel said.

“We’ve held true to our principles and made a wholesale change in the industry. And unlike other cities that are struggling with this, we systematically over the last three years have worked through about 20 years of issues, meeting everybody’s bottom line. But most important, those who ride. We met their bottom line without raising fares.”

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) said cabdrivers have been clamoring for a fare hike since she became an alderman 14 years ago.

“We have found a way to level the playing field somewhat . . . . You came in and took this under your wing . . . to make sure taxi drivers are not left out,” Mitts told the mayor.

“Being able to spend just a little bit more time at home with their families — being able to put a little bit more money in their pockets and food on their tables was such an inspiration to us. It says we’re doing something right.”

Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) said cabdrivers have been “screaming for help” for years, only to have their pleas “fall on deaf ears.” That is, until Emanuel “opened up the lines of communication.”

“This is going to be about $8,000 to some drivers back in their pocket. That’s a lot of money when you look at what they have to deal with every single day,” Beale said.

“The city has had a stranglehold on the cabdrivers. Finally, we’ve gotten to the point where we can give them some relief. They’ve been over-regulated and over-regulated and over-regulated. We increased the fees on `em. But now, we’re giving them some breathing room. I’ve never seen so many taxicab drivers down in this chamber that we finally passed something that we can support.”

Earlier this week, cabdrivers who have long accused Emanuel of tilting the scales in favor of ride-sharing filled the City Council chambers and applauded the long-sought financial relief — even without a fare hike.

Only the United Taxidrivers Community Council was willing to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“The city needs to do more if we are going to preserve a healthy taxi industry. It is not enough to give our hard-working, mostly immigrant work force a living wage — nor does it provide an attractive enough income improvement to lure our drivers back from the ride-steal industry they have been flocking to,” said UTCC Chairman Fayez Khozindar.

One week after aldermen cast a historic vote to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019, the UTCC’s Secretary-Treasurer Peter Enger told them cabbies “need a living wage” and won’t get it from the mayor’s plan.

“It is a first step and we’re happy about it. But it will not benefit all cabdrivers. The independent owner-operators who do not pay credit card cashing fees because they process it through their own system and the ones who do not pay leases because they own their own medallions are not getting any benefit at all from this ordinance,” Enger said.

The UTCC had proposed a 10-point plan that included raising mileage and waiting times by 25 percent.

Emanuel ignored the demands, but embraced many of the group’s other ideas to ease the financial squeeze on cabbies.

The cornerstone is a city-wide dispatch system that should level the playing field with the ease of ride-sharing. There’s also a reduction in lease rates that gobble up nearly 40 percent of driver revenue by 10-to-20 percent — or $2,400-to-$5,600-a-year. The city will also require a “lease credit” for all cabs bearing advertising.