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Fair fares for Hillsborough cabs

Allowing cabs in Hillsborough County to charge a flat rate for trips between the airport and downtown Tampa would serve several useful goals. Travelers would know before they stepped inside the car what a trip to or from Tampa International Airport would cost. The extra dollar or two the plan would add to the existing cost could be enough to sweeten the pot so that cabbies are more reliable and courteous. Visitors wouldn't have to wonder whether they were being cheated by being taken on longer, more expensive routes. The county's Public Transportation Commission should approve the idea, as part of a broader effort to improve taxi service for residents and visitors alike.

The commission's director, Greg Cox, is trying to address a financial issue to drivers and at the same time make taking a cab less of a hassle. Under his plan, a trip from the airport to downtown, Ybor City or Davis Islands would cost a flat $20. The fare, currently, can run anywhere from $15 to $18, depending on the route, the traffic and the time of day. County investigators have found some cases where metered charges to the downtown cruise ship terminals have reached $26. Giving visitors the feeling they've been cheated does not help Tampa promote itself as a tourist destination. With so much public money invested in the aquarium, the trolley, Ybor City and the convention and entertainment venues downtown, the city and county should be taking every reasonable step to promote a positive civic image.

Aside from removing the anxiety over cost, the flat-rate proposal could be enough to induce cab companies to improve service. Taxi service in Tampa is a problem for many reasons. Outside the airport and the bigger hotels, there is no activity that attracts a heavy presence of reliable cab service. It often is difficult to get a cab from restaurants back to the hotels downtown. The commission staff has proposed a separate flat rate for trips in the downtown core. The $2 surcharge for two or more passengers could make it worth it for cabs to be more available for short trips.

The commission should tie any increase to tougher penalties against drivers and companies that cheat or provide bad service. Cabbies and owners have their own ways to refuse to provide short-haul service, which is not as lucrative as longer trips. Publicizing the results of undercover fact-finding trips could be a way for regulators to embarrass taxi companies into doing a better job. Any agreement to increase rates should be tied to a clear expectation of better service.

The flat rate should be clearly marked in vehicles, and the commission should undertake an aggressive effort to solicit feedback from passengers. The agency will hold a public hearing Thursday at Union Station, the train depot, in downtown. For details call (813) 272-5814. This proposal is a balanced way to improve taxi service.