Mayor Adrian Fenty is spurning a D.C. Council directive to lift the $19 cap on taxicab rides that start and end in the District, contending that Congress awarded his administration total control over fares and meter regulation. The cap is a holdout from the zone fare system, which was supplanted by time and distance meters in June 2008. Drivers today complain they are forced to work for nothing when the meter hits $19 short of a destination. Riders are the beneficiaries, especially those traveling cross-city during rush hour.

The council killed the cap in the current budget, adopted last August, but the limit remains. According to an opinion issued by the office of Attorney General Peter Nickles, the mayor was awarded by Congress exclusive authority to set taxi rates and the council's action "unlawfully" interfered with that power.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission, which claims on its Web site to have authority to "promulgate fares and regulations," now declares it is powerless to take any action. "If that's the case, then there's no need for the Taxicab Commission," at-large Councilman Michael Brown, who has oversight of the taxi industry, said recently. "If you take the rates away, that obviously limits what the commission can do."

An eight-mile cab ride early Monday afternoon from Southeast to upper Northwest -- the Navy Yard Metro station to the Takoma station -- fell just shy of the cap at $17.50. But a similar ride from, say, a home in Congress Heights to a doctor's office in Takoma at 4 p.m., or on a rainy day, would certainly hit the $19 limit and probably keep going, said the driver, Mostafa.

"They want you to drive them for free," he said. "Where are the checks and balances here? Who's going to defend us?"

Sen. Carl Levin delivered to Fenty dictatorial control of the taxicab industry, in Nickles' view. A provision included by the Michigan Democrat in the 2005 D.C. Omnibus Authorization Act required the District to implement meters but allowed the mayor to opt out by executive order. The authority granted to Fenty, in Nickles' opinion, "can't be impeded by local legislation."

"He gave the full faith and authority for operating of the meters to the mayor, bypassing the city council," Leon Swain, D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman, said during a recent commission meeting. "And so, right now we have a legal opinion from the attorney general that the $19 fare cap is still in effect."