When Amy FitzPatrick hopped into a cab after having a few drinks last week on King Street, the driver started a meter that would determine the fare at her journey’s end.
FitzPatrick wasn’t going very far, just to her home near The Battery. She knew that city law demands a flat $5 fee for a taxi ride anywhere on Charleston’s peninsula.
The driver didn’t know about that rule, which went into effect in mid-2011, despite it being posted in plain lettering on the cab’s exterior.
Police were called. Things were sorted out. The driver charged FitzPatrick the $5, and she added a $5 tip.
But even though FitzPatrick got her way that evening, she said riders shouldn’t need to call the authorities to get the by-the-book price. Tourists and residents who don’t know the law could get taken for a ride, she said.
For the 30-year-old saleswoman, it’s about the principle, not the money.
“It’s been a recurring issue for me,” FitzPatrick said. “And the police need to enforce the law.”
It’s not known how many drivers are not following the city ordinance, and whether some are doing so out of ignorance or a matter of policy. But drivers and company officials have conceded that it’s a problem.
FitzPatrick’s cabbie, Debbie Green, acknowledged that she did not know about the flat fee. She said her bosses at Green Way Transportation LLC told her to let the meter calculate the rate.
Green also said she didn’t understand the fuss. Taking the time to pull over at Spring and Coming streets at 11 p.m. on March 22 and wait as FitzPatrick called police cost her time and money, she said.
“No one ever told me about the flat fee,” said Green, a taxi driver for 13 years. “But in the end, she got what she wanted.”
Bernard Williams, a manager at Green Way Transportation, said that FitzPatrick’s ordeal was an anomaly and vowed that it wouldn’t repeat itself.
“Most of the times, they get so caught up in running the meter,” Williams said. “But we do that flat rate because it’s written on the car.”
Wael Touma, another manager for the company, said otherwise. He said $5 for a ride anywhere downtown isn’t fiscally feasible.
He mentioned how a ride from the peninsula’s northern end to the Battery could cost a driver $2 for gas. That figures to be only a $3 profit, to which he said, “Come on, man!”
The law allows drivers to tack on surcharges corresponding with fluctuating fuel prices. If gas is running about $3.50 per gallon, drivers can charge another $1. Extra passengers also cost $1 each.
Those surcharges must be posted for the rider to see, according to the law.
Charleston police have the authority to enforce the rules, even though no citation was handed out in FitzPatrick’s case.
Police spokesman Charles Francis said two officers responded to her complaint and used a flashlight to point out the notice about the flat fee on Green’s cab. That’s when the driver agreed to charge the rate, Francis said.
Jerry Crosby, co-owner of Yellow Cab, said such complaints are not uncommon. People also report sightings of unlicensed or unmetered taxis, he said.
Crosby said his company, which has been in business for 50 years, works with the police by passing along those complaints. Some area investigators conduct undercover stings to ensure compliance, he added.
“They do their best to stay on top of the illegal activity out there, and there’s a lot of it,” Crosby said. “There are people doing a lot of crazy things.”
Riders shouldn’t be alarmed when a driver starts the meter in the downtown area, Crosby said.
The meter has a flat-rate option that the driver can select. If the rider needs a lift to West Ashley, though, the driver will mash a different button on the meter, which will determine the fare when the cab’s wheels come to a stop.
As Mohammad Yousef prepared to give a man a ride from Marion Square on Thursday afternoon, he stood by his Yellow Cab minivan and pointed out the flat-rate sign. He’s all right with the fare; it covers the costs.
“But I don’t like the people who aren’t following the rules,” he said. “They’re ripping people off.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.