Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Friendship Heights tries to hail an answer on taxicabs

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
A taxicab stand is beingconsidered for Wisconsin Circle, near the Friendship Heights Metrorailstation.
Standing in the rain, clutching soggy grocery bags and hoping in vain for a taxicab to miraculously pull up — that’s the scenario some Friendship Heights transportation advisors are trying to avoid.

Members of the Friendship Heights Transportation Management District Advisory Committee will soon find out whether the county plans to bring a taxicab stand back to Wisconsin Circle near the Friendship Heights Metrorail station.

‘‘As Chairman of the [committee], it’s sort of discouraging to see all your neighbors standing in the rain,” said Robert Cope, who lives five blocks from the Metrorail station.

County staff are looking at the results of a seven-month intensive monitoring — watching commuters leave the Metro station, whether they notice the taxicab button, whether they try to catch a cab and how long it takes to get one. The county will decide next week whether to move the taxi stand from its current location behind the Giant supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue to the more visible Wisconsin Circle.

The cab conversation between Friendship Heights residents and the county, which decides where to put taxicab stands, began more than a year ago. The taxi stand nearest Friendship Heights Metrorail station was a Wisconsin Circle mainstay. Then building construction projects on the Circle — at Wisconsin, Willard and Western avenues — forced the taxi stand over to a spot on Willard Avenue in front of Lia’s Restaurant.

Friendship Heights residents thought the taxi stand would return to Wisconsin Circle when construction ended about two years ago. But taxis remain exiled from the circle, and Friendship Heights residents say the cabs are still in their temporary Willard Avenue location.

‘‘That became the source of a lot of complaints,” said Friendship Heights Village Manager Julian Mansfield.

Taxicabs making illegal u-turns onto Wisconsin Avenue, taxis parked in valet spots and congestion from taxis lingering on Willard Avenue were among complaints Mansfield heard from Friendship Heights residents and business owners during the past two years.

The county’s taxicab officials — under the Department of Public Works and Transportation — launched a seven-month study that just ended. They tested whether a taxi stand currently in the parking lot behind the Giant supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue or a Wisconsin Circle taxi stand would be the solution.

The existing Giant taxi stand is poorly lit and hard to find, making it undesirable for taxi drivers and anyone needing a cab, according to Mansfield and Cope.

The Chevy Chase Land Company, Wisconsin Circle’s developers, installed a taxicab call button about 18 months ago near the Metro station. When pushed, the button summons a taxicab to the station through a local cab company. But some say, anecdotally, the button isn’t working so well.

‘‘Number one, somebody has to push the button. Number two, somebody has to find the button,” Cope said.

Friendship Heights transportation advisors will hear the county’s decision at a meeting, open to the public, at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 12 at the clubhouse of Somerset House, 5600 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase.

‘‘The county is committed to ensuring that residents who use the Friendship Heights Metro have convenient access to taxicab service,” said Esther Bowring, county spokeswoman.

Town of Somerset Councilman Jeffrey Slavin said he understands some traffic flow related arguments against returning the taxis to traffic-heavy Wisconsin Circle. But he and other advisors hope to find a way to get taxis closer to the Metro station.

‘‘Part of what we’re trying to do on the Transportation Management District Advisory Committee is to get people out of their cars,” Slavin said. ‘‘I think if they knew [taxicabs are available], it would increase the likelihood they would use Metro.”