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Wheelchair-Accessibility Deadline For Taxis Prompts Threat, Confusion

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Rock Creek Cab Company owner Moe Rahim says D.C. regulators will not 
give him licenses for new wheelchair accessible vans because they are 
not "brand new."
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
Rock Creek Cab Company owner Moe Rahim says D.C. regulators will not give him licenses for new wheelchair accessible vans because they are not "brand new."

The D.C. Taxicab Commission is ordering 21 cab companies to cease all operations by July 15 for failing to meet a deadline to convert at least 6 percent of their fleets to wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The companies have 14 days to appeal.

After receiving questions over two days from WAMU 88.5 about the June 30 deadline, the commission sent out a news release late Wednesday announcing 86 wheelchair-accessible cabs have been added to the District’s fleet, more than quintupling the current figure and pleasing advocates who have spent years fighting for more vehicles.

“It is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I think that most of the public would agree that access to transportation is a civil right,” said Carol Tyson, a disability rights advocate at United Spinal Association.

Yet the announcement failed to clear up confusion over which companies actually were in compliance with the 6 percent mandate. The commission noted 21 companies missed the deadline out of a total 91 authorized to operate in Washington. But the latter figure includes an unspecified number of taxicab associations that are not required to convert parts of their fleets for wheelchairs.

Also, one of the largest companies in D.C., Silver Cab, was among the 21 listed in violation even though its owner says he has the correct number of vehicles.

“I am ready to go forward,” said company owner Mohammed Momen, who was required to convert 6 percent of his 107 company-owned taxis to wheelchair-ready vans.

“It is not easy to get all those new cars because it costs lots of money. It is going to cost at the end of the day for each one about $36,000,” said Momen, who said taxi regulators visited his garage in Northeast D.C. on Wednesday afternoon and approved his purchases: a group of lime green minivans with temporary plates waiting to be painted in the District’s red and gray color scheme.

Momen complied with the mandate only reluctantly. “If it was my choice I would not do it,” he said.

A few doors down from Silver Cab on 5th Street Northeast there was more confusion inside Rock Creek Cab, also facing the revocation of its operating license.

General manager Moe Rahim showed a reporter a stack of documents signed by taxicab commission officials certifying his purchase of five wheelchair accessible vehicles for $130,000, but the minivans have been sitting on his lot since April.

“I have everything. All my paperwork signed, everything ready to go on all the forms,” said Rahim. In May, the D.C. Taxicab Commission withdrew its approval after deciding the minivans were not new enough; each had a few thousand miles on their odometers. “These cars should all be on the road.”

“They just said, sorry, we can’t issue you new tags,” Rahim recalled.

New H-tags, or taxi licenses, are distributed for new wheelchair-accessible vehicles if the cab company agrees to affiliate with the Transport D.C. program, which provides transportation to people with disabilities who are eligible for paratransit rides through MetroAccess.

If a cab company buys used vehicles it must transfer an equivalent number of its current H-tags to the wheelchair-ready vans and affiliate with one of five dispatch companies in D.C., ensuring rides will be available to anyone with disabilities who calls for service. Few drivers are expected to seek out people in wheelchairs hailing on the street.

Rahim said he was not interested in flipping any of his current H-tags and will instead operate his five new minivans as regular taxis.

“Why should I cease operations? I’ve done everything according to what I needed to do,” said Rahim, who said he expects another group of five minivans he purchased to arrive at his shop within days.

Reluctant company owners expressed concern that drivers will not want to rent their new wheelchair-accessible vehicles, opting instead for regular sedans that come with a cheaper weekly rental fee.

“This is a business, up and down,” said Silver Cab’s Momen. “We are going to see what will happen. I can talk about that one in another five or six months, whether I am getting the drivers or not.”

The local Teamsters union has been pushing the taxicab commission to release an additional 200 H-tags for independent drivers interested in operating wheelchair-accessible cabs, but the commission recently scrapped the idea – even though an internal commission report determined such a move would not negatively impact the taxi market in Washington.

Many of the 21 companies cited for failing to meet the 6 percent mandate own just a few dozen taxis. Why they failed to acquire wheelchair-ready vehicles was unclear, as was the precise number of companies actually in compliance. The D.C. Taxicab Commission did not respond to questions from WAMU 88.5 about these and other relevant issues.

Among the large companies in compliance were Yellow Cab and Transco Inc., the latter which operates 19 different taxi brands. Yellow Cab has 14 wheelchair-accessible vans in service through Transport D.C., exceeding its minimum requirement by six vehicles. Transco has 24 accessible taxis, exceeding its mandate by nine vehicles, and plans to double that figure by the end of the year.

By the end of next year, all D.C. cab companies are required to have 12 percent of their fleets wheelchair-accessible, and then 20 percent by Dec. 31, 2018.

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