Need a taxi? It could mean a wait in Fort McMurray, where tired drivers leave the company

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As bars in Fort McMurray, Alta., open to larger crowds and nightlife begins to pick up, patrons may end up waiting hours at the end of the night to get home safely.

The taxi industry has seen a sharp decline in the number of drivers, some in the industry say it’s because they haven’t seen a pay rise in almost 10 years.

Penny Skinner, director of Sun Taxi, said the company had 137 units on the road before the pandemic, but now has about 50.

On a cold morning, people can wait up to an hour for a taxi, and at night the wait time can be several hours, Skinner said.

Drivers are leaving for better-paying jobs or simply leaving town, she said.

Penny Skinner, director of Sun Taxi, says drivers are leaving for better paying jobs, like Skip the Dishes or in the oil sands industry. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Taxi fares, which are set by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, have not increased since 2014.

The rate is currently set at $3.80 for the first 52 yards, plus 10 cents for every 52 yards thereafter.

Greg Bennett, communications strategist for the regional municipality, said Bylaws Services will begin engaging the public on the rental vehicle bylaw this year as part of an update.

“We have heard concerns about current rates from some industry players,” Bennett said in an email.

Insurance has increased by about 40% for taxi drivers over the past year, and gasoline is about 50% more expensive than in 2014, Skinner said.

“Costs are going up for these drivers and it’s not profitable for them to be here,” she said. “The rules need to be reviewed.

She would like to see tariffs increase by 15 percent.

“You need a balance”

Skinner met with the adviser. Funky Banjoko to talk about the problem. Banjoko said she was doing more research to see what could be done to support taxi drivers.

“We need taxi services to be able to operate profitably and safely and people also need to be able to afford the fares. There needs to be a balance,” Banjoko said.

Like Skinner, Banjoko said there was a need to review the rate schedule.

Mostafa Hajer, driver for Sun Taxi, starts getting into debt by $250 every day when you factor in insurance prices, gas prices, his driver’s license and license plate taxi.

“The drivers are fed up,” said Hajer, who said he works 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

He wants to be able to charge a minimum of $10 per trip.

“I do not have [taken] a day off since September,” Hajer said. “It’s not fair at all… At the end of the day, I go home, I don’t have the energy just to see my kids.”

Sun Taxi has about a third of drivers on the road compared to pre-pandemic levels. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Sometimes drivers are put in dangerous situations. Hajer was driving a man to Calgary when he discovered the man had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I wish the city would just take care of the drivers,” he said.

He said the drivers worked during the holidays, prevented people from driving while intoxicated and should be paid fairly.

Abdulghani Abdo, director of United Class Cabs, said his business had grown from around 200 drivers before the pandemic to around 60 now.

“They can’t make a living,” Abdo said.

As demand increases with lift restrictions, Abdo said taxi availability “is going to be an issue”. He said calls have increased by 30% since January.

“We don’t have enough cars.”

Sun Taxi cars are parked in the snow-covered parking lot, as there are not enough drivers to meet the demand. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Angel Vandale, bartender at Tavern on Main, said on a particularly busy night last week that she called at least 10 taxis but only one showed up.

At the end of the night, she had to drive a client to another location to find a taxi.

She had already spent 90 minutes at the bar after hours, waiting for the man’s taxi. And the dispatch told him that he would have to wait at least an hour.

Vandal has worked at the bar since 2012 and said she has never seen people struggle so hard to get home safely.

“I worry about the impact this will have when we return to regular hours,” Vandale said.

“Are we going to stay here until 4 am waiting for taxis?” It’s not really a possibility.

Angel Vandale, bartender at Tavern on Main, says she is worried about what will happen as bars start to return to regular hours. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

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