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How many is too many taxis in Sacramento?

There are more than 500 taxis in Sacramento, according to Dafna Gauthier, business permit manager for the city – a number Gauthier said is out of line for the population of the city.

Earlier this year, when city staff started fielding complaints from taxi drivers, cab company operators and business owners, Gauthier said city staff began looking into the emerging problems.

Cab drivers complained that there were too many taxis and business owners complained that taxis were parking in front of their businesses because there aren’t enough taxi parking spaces.

When staff compared the population of the city to the number of taxis, they found that, since 2004, the number of Sacramento taxis operating within the city increased 66 percent while population only increased 8 percent.

City staff told council members at the Aug. 4 City Council meeting that there was a “general consensus” that there were too many taxis in the city.

The City Council responded with a two-year moratorium on new taxis in Sacramento to give city staff time to analyze the problems and suggest ways to deal with them.

Gauthier is the city staff member who is taking the lead on the new study, which will address problems such as traffic congestion, limited taxi parking, passenger complaints and suffocating competition between companies.

“I want to look at the (city) code,” Gauthier said. “We have a multitude of information we need to research.”

“We need to ask who we compare to, how do we match up, and how can we be better,” Gauthier said.

Similar to other cities of its size, such as Fresno, Long Beach and Oakland, taxi cabs drivers in Sacramento are required to have a permit for operation along with a separate permit for the vehicle.

Although the drop rate – the base rate that a meter is set at when a passenger gets in – in Sacramento is slightly higher than similar-sized cities – $4 in Sacramento compared to $3.40 in Fresno, $3.10 in San Francisco and $2 in Oakland – the per-mile rate is calculated at a rate of one quarter mile, where other cities calculate on one-fifth of a mile, which makes the final bill add up quicker.

The cost of permits is lower in Sacramento than in other cities, as well.

In Sacramento, the cost for permit application for a new driver is $139. In Fresno, the initial fee is $225.

From 2004 to 2006, Sacramento underwent a study by a private firm to assess the local taxi industry and come up with a re-regulation plan to improve service quality.

The study resulted in a number of new regulations from City Hall, including setting a maximum on fares, raising the minimum standards for drivers and vehicles and promoting self-regulation and improved enforcement.

Along with those regulations, the city began requiring cab companies to form fleet associations – co-op taxi groups of at least 25 vehicles.

The intent was that the industry would self-regulate and that would solve many of the problems the city was having.

Abdul Kakar, president of the Sacramento Independent Taxi Owners Association, was a driver in the city for five years before moving his operation to cover the airport.

SITOA has an “on-demand service” contract with Sacramento International Airport that allows only the 85 members of the association to use the designated taxi area at the airport to drop off, pick up and wait for fares – other taxi companies can only drop off or pick up passengers at the airport by reservation.

Before the SITOA was formed, Kakar said taxi service at the airport was overly competitive and problematic.

“When we had no association over here, there were fights between cab drivers and the sheriffs were involved every day,” Kakar said.

Although the taxi area at the airport allows for just 10 cabs to line up, Kakar said there were times when double that number would be trying to crowd in, and often scuffles would flare up between cabbies over fares and position in the queue.

“After the taxi drivers formed their own association,” Kakar said, “there hasn’t been any problems like that.”

But requiring associations didn’t do enough to solve the problems in the city, Gauthier said.

“The goal was to let the industry run itself – let the competition drive themselves,” Gauthier said. “But that didn’t really happen.”

Gauthier, whose department is responsible for the issuing of taxi permits, said taxi service is “one of the cheapest industries” to get into on your own, and that opened the door for a “huge influx of permit applications and a flood of new taxis” as the economy declined over the past few years.

According to staff from Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy’s office, Sheedy suggested the moratorium to halt the growth and figure out how to reduce taxi numbers in the city.

Sacramento is similar to other cities such as Fresno, Long Beach and Oakland in how it permits taxis, but there are significant differences in the way each city regulates services.

Gauthier said in Sacramento there are quarterly meetings between city staff and representatives from the various taxi fleet associations in the city so there can be direct input from people in the industry.

“Fleet managers are the spokespersons for their association,” Gautier said. “They come to the meetings, they report back (to their members) and bring feedback to the next meeting so the association has representation.”

Gauthier said the study will be conducted during the two-year timeframe of the moratorium and should allow for a full examination of the issues.

Although Gauthier said she expects to make frequent progress reports to the City Council, it’s uncertain how often those reports will occur.

“Right now,” Gauthier said, “we are trying to formulate a strategy for accomplishing the study.”

Melissa Corker is a Staff Reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.