Proposed 5% hike in cab fares meets reluctant state transportation official

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Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 1:50 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

LINCOLN — A state transportation official pressed Omaha cab companies, which are asking for a rate increase, to consider the plight of elderly people on fixed incomes.

“It might be easier for a younger Frank Landis to pay these increases,” said Nebraska Public Service Commissioner Frank Landis of Lincoln, who cited the meager increases in Social Security benefits in recent years.

The operator of five Omaha taxicab brands told regulators Tuesday that he needs the increase to keep up with costs, including technology that improves service for consumers, such as an in-cab payment systems and an app that lets users hail and pay for cabs with their smartphones.

John Davis said he also has faced growing insurance costs as a result of accidents caused by uninsured motorists — not his drivers. Asked for specific dollar figures, his attorney said he would supply those to the Public Service Commission by the end of the week.

Davis said he did not take Social Security increases into account but said seniors already pay less than younger riders.

Per-mile rates would rise approximately 5 percent in both Omaha and Lincoln for cabs under the Yellow, Checker, Cornhusker, Safeway and Happy Cab names.

Including a $2.95 “drop charge” for the first mile, the base cost of a 5-mile ride for a younger rider would go up 44 cents, or 3.74 percent, to $12.19. The same ride for a senior rider cost go up 36 cents, or 3.72 percent, to $10.03.

The most recent increase was in 2011, Davis said. Social Security benefits did not go up in 2011 and then rose 3.6 percent in 2012, 1.7 percent in 2013 and 1.5 percent this year.

Davis also is requesting an increase in the cabs' hourly rate, which he said has not increased in at least eight years. The rate would more than double, to $50 per hour with a two-hour minimum, up from $22 per hour. An in-town mileage limit would be eliminated.

Davis said the hourly rate is typically used by people who are bar-hopping or out for the evening at a special event such as a bachelorette party. At the current rate, he said, drivers are less willing to accept the fares because they can make more money picking up several riders during that time.

The commission could vote in early May on the request.

Separately Tuesday, the commission discussed concerns about online ride services Uber and Lyft possibly launching operations in Nebraska.

Commissioner Anne Boyle said she has warned Omaha hotel operators and city officials that visitors and residents should not use the services, which use apps to connect riders with local drivers who use their own vehicles to give rides.

Boyle is concerned that the services could launch in time for the May 3 Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual meeting and the College World Series in June.

“We have a serious problem in Nebraska,” said Boyle, who is concerned that the services would not provide customers with the same safety protections as regulated taxicab companies. The services say they conduct background checks on their drivers, provide liability insurance for drivers and conduct safety inspections on vehicles.

Boyle said she has contacted Omaha police, the office of Mayor Jean Stothert and the Metropolitan Hospitality Association.

Both Uber and Lyft, San Francisco-based startups, have advertised for drivers in Nebraska.

Commission transportation director Mark Breiner on Monday sent letters to the services telling them to stop advertising for drivers and warning that they would be in violation of state law if they operate in Nebraska.

The services have come under fire from taxi companies and regulators in numerous states and cities.

Neither service has announced concrete plans to operate in Nebraska. But the commission was clear on what would happen if they do.

“If they begin operation, I believe our next step would be to enforce the law,” Breiner said.

Jim Campin, an owner of Emerald Limousine, which operates in Lincoln and Omaha, told the commission he wants the state to hold online-ride service drivers to the same standards as taxi and limo companies.

Uber and Lyft customers use a rating system to share information about the quality of their drivers. Campin said that's not enough to protect the public.

In his experience, he said, “Not a single customer is going to call in and say, 'Are you properly licensed and insured?' ”

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