Ronnie Polaneczky: FOR DISABLED & TAXIS, LIFE IS SIMPLY NOT FARE

Posted: February 16, 2012

I'VE NEVER been more grateful for my two good feet than I was after attending yesterday's public hearing about the need for more wheelchair-accessible taxicabs.

Disabled citizens spoke movingly about how scary it is to be stranded in a bad neighborhood and know that passing cabs aren't equipped to get you off the street.

About the tightened eligibility requirements of SEPTA's paratransit service. About the impossibility of being wheelchair-bound in Center City, unable to get to business appointments.

Of 1,600 cabs in Philly, only three - count 'em, three - are wheelchair-accessible.

I left the hearings, conducted by the Philadelphia Parking Authority (which oversees city taxi operations), with two convictions:

That the able-bodied should give daily thanks for their physical good fortune. And that taxi access for all is entirely doable.

Taxi drivers, lawyers for taxi associations, cab-company owners and manufacturers of wheelchair-friendly vehicles all sounded eager to work with the disabled and with the PPA to get more handicapped-accessible cabs on the street. (Have I noted that there are only three?)

Yet yesterday's hearing at the Pennsylvania Convention Center appeared to be the first time that all these folks were in the same room to discuss how that might happen.

And, oh, were they worried.

They'd gathered in response to the PPA's proposal that at least 300 city cabs be wheelchair-accessible by the end of 2012; by the end of 2016, accessibility would be required of all 1,600.

Yet, the PPA had offered no numbers to support that order. For example, one of the city's three wheelchair-accessible taxis gets fewer than 10 jobs per week. Is that because there's little need? Or because no one knows how to access the cabs?

It would be helpful to know, since the cost of retrofitting 1,600 cabs (upwards of $15,000 per vehicle) or replacing them ($30,000 to $40,000 a pop) is staggering.

More profitable cab companies might be able to afford that investment, but smaller companies would be run out of business. Besides, many companies use their valuable taxi medallions as collateral on bank loans; retrofitting or replacing vehicles would throw those loans into jeopardy.

Ironically, said Jordan Rand, attorney for Germantown Cab Co., a nonmedallion operation, the cost of the proposed change would no doubt require owners to lobby the PPA for a fare increase. And that would hit hard Germantown's low-income clientele.

"In the goal of giving access to all, we'd end up denying access to some," said Rand.

Talk about trading one injustice for another.

The thing is, the PPA might've known all this had the agency brought everyone to the table before floating its proposed legislation, says Jeff Hornstein, executive director of the year-old Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association. An initial powwow would've given everyone a chance to float reasonable ideas, like the one that suggests selling new medallions for wheelchair-friendly vehicles. And it would've given taxi manufacturers a chance to explain differences between retrofitted cabs and a ready-made one.

As one manufacturer alleged yesterday, retrofitted cabs often mean that a passenger is "stuffed" into a cab "like luggage." True or not, the allegation deserves an airing in a venue that allows sharing for more than three minutes (which was yesterday's limit).

In the past, PPA Executive Director Vince Fenerty has said that his agency had pushed for years for more wheelchair-friendly taxis in Philly but got nowhere, hence its "now or never" push. True, but the resistance came not from the local taxi industry but from Harrisburg pols who larded proposed legislation with nontaxi ephemera.

Besides, the PPA presents its own obstacles to companies hoping to run successful wheelchair-friendly operations, says Everett Abitbol, owner of Freedom Taxi, which operates two of the three wheelchair-friendly cabs.

Since last July, Freedom has been operating with temporary approval by the PPA, which has yet to act on Freedom requests for certain waivers that would reduce drivers' cost and improve public accessibility at no cost to the public.

"To its credit, the PPA took on a very fractured taxi industry and has tried to unite it," says Abitbol. "But it's like herding cats."

So why not get those cats in the same room on the disability issue? Yesterday, they sounded more than willing to work together, if the PPA is willing to listen.


Email polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Blog: www.philly.com/RonnieBlog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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