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D.C. Cab Companies Struggle To Meet Wheelchair-Accessible Deadline

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Wheelchair-accessible cabs can represent an investment of $30,000-$40,000.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Wheelchair-accessible cabs can represent an investment of $30,000-$40,000.

Several Washington cab companies may miss a June 29 deadline to upgrade at least 6 percent of their fleets to wheelchair-accessible vehicles, frustrating disability rights advocates who already were unhappy that the original late Dec. 2014 deadline had been pushed back six months.

For years only a handful of wheelchair-ready taxis operated in D.C. Two government-subsidized ride programs, Roll DC and Transport DC, provided 19 vehicles for people in wheelchairs, primarily to make doctors’ visits. But under the D.C. Taxi Act of 2012, the 27 cab companies with fleets of at least 20 taxis were supposed to convert or purchase accessible vehicles so there would be at least 70 on the streets of the District by now.

Companies unable to meet the deadline may apply for 180-day extensions.

“People in wheelchairs have been sitting on curbs around the District forever, waiting for a cab to pick them up. So now we have to wait some more?” said Ian Watlington, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair and works for the National Disability Rights Network. “I think it is time they get down to business and give us the taxicabs we deserve in this District,” he said.

Cost vs. service

The D.C. Taxicab Commission, whose interim chairman Eric Rogers was replaced on Monday by Ernest Chrappah, declined to provide a list of cab companies seeking extensions or waivers, but industry representatives confirmed many are struggling to purchase the vehicles.

“It is a significant investment to make, and the companies by legislation have to meet this deadline,” said Roy Spooner, the general manager of Yellow Cab, who said his fleet will be in compliance with the 6 percent mandate.

“I think some of the extensions have been because of the financial issues involved,” Spooner added. “They have to go out and acquire these vehicles and then depend on drivers renting those vehicles from them. You can wind up making the investment but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have anyone to rent it. These things can range from $30,000 to $40,000 depending on the type of vehicle.”

Yellow Cab owns about 140 taxis registered in D.C., so its quota will be eight wheelchair-accessible vehicles (about 400 other taxis affiliate with the Yellow Cab brand but the quota is based on only vehicles owned).

Transco Inc., which owns 16 cab companies under one roof, also said it would be in compliance but many of its competitors will miss the June 29 deadline.

“Over 90 percent will not be compliant by June 29,” said Transco vice president Jeff Schaeffer, who said fleet owners simply do not want to spend the money. “I think their operating authority should be revoked.”

H-tag freeze

Although disability rights advocates contend there is pent up demand for wheelchair-ready rides, cab companies may be wary of assuming all the risk. Because of the District’s freeze on the issuance of H-tags, independent drivers may not purchase and operate their own wheelchair-accessible taxis. Instead drivers have to rent the taxi, usually a minivan with a rear ramp for power wheelchairs or motorized scooters, off a company’s lot.

D.C. native Arika Woodson, 35, approached the D.C. Taxicab Commission with a proposal to operate her own taxi company exclusively for people in wheelchairs, but was turned away because of the H-tag freeze.

“They are no longer issuing H-tags, and from what I understand an H-tag is what I need to put my vehicle on the road,” said Woodson, who has sunk $6,000 in her business, Dependable Exceptional Wheels.

“If you are in a wheelchair and you want to go out and enjoy yourself, or if you are coming home late from the airport or train station, and you want to call a taxi… you don’t have that option,” she said.

A spokesman for the D.C. Taxicab Commission offered a brief statement about the current situation.

“Companies are working to be in compliance with the 6 percent requirement for wheelchair-accessible vehicles by the June 29 deadline,” the statement said.

The commission was finalizing a plan to issue H-tags to 200 independent owner/operators to purchase and drive wheelchair-ready taxis, but it was scrapped for reasons that remain unclear. The plan had the backing of the local Teamsters union, which represents about 2,000 independent Washington cabbies.

“The important thing about giving that tag to an independent driver is, they are willing to step up to the plate to provide this service. Right now, companies can’t get the tags because of the financial costs and having to rent [the wheelchair-accessible vehicle] to a driver,” said the Teamsters’ Royale Simms.

Wheelchair-accessible ratio to rise

After meeting the 6 percent ratio this month, D.C. cab companies will be faced with upgrading to 12 percent by the end of 2016 and 20 percent by Dec. 31, 2018. Eventually there may be financial assistance available.

The For-Hire Vehicle Accessible Amendment Act of 2014 was supposed to establish a fund to purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles and train their drivers. The fund would be financed by a fee on all taxi cabs and ride-hailing vehicles, such as Uber and Lyft, that are inaccessible to people with disabilities.

The legislation also was supposed to establish a tax credit to upgrade existing taxis to wheelchair-accessibility or to buy a new one. But because legislators are unsure how much revenue will be generated from the one percent fee on all cab companies and ride-hailing apps, the D.C. Council is waiting to determine the exact amount that would have to be assessed on all for-hire drivers.

It also appears some available funding has gone unspent. The D.C. Council allotted $750,000 for the D.C. Taxicab Commission to expand wheelchair-accessibility in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, but the money has not been used.

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