Handicapped-accessible cabs coming, but maybe not enough

Posted: July 07, 2012

Philadelphia residents and visitors who use wheelchairs have spent more than two decades waiting for cabs that can accommodate them. Now the cabs are on their way, but there might not be enough to go around.

The legislature last week paved the way for wheelchair-accessible cabs by allowing the Philadelphia Parking Authority to auction 15 new medallions a year, until the total reaches 150.

It's a starting point rather than an end point, the plan's proponents say.

Taxi drivers object to provisions that expand the jurisdiction of the PPA, which will now have control over non-medallion cabs. The owner of a disabled-taxi company complains that the bill doesn't address issues such as subsidies and vehicle standards. And disabled advocates called the number of licenses "ridiculous" - several analyses urged from 200 to 300 medallions to cover a city of this size.

The bill's sponsor, State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware), said he would have preferred more medallions, but 15 was what various "stakeholder groups" could agree on.

"It was a number that we had negotiated with members of the [Americans With Disabilities Act] community, people from the industry, and regulatory agencies," he said. "They were all adamant that we needed to start somewhere."

With no taxis that could fit their wheelchairs, disabled residents and visitors have had to rely on SEPTA, which has a limited service area, or paratransit, which is often late or overbooked and must be reserved at least a day in advance. When it's raining, or when you need to get somewhere last minute, "you'd like the same option as other people," said Nancy Salandra, president of Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania.

Salandra called the bill "outrageous" and said local disabled advocates were not consulted.

"This city just has a history of doing nothing for disabled people; we have to do it ourselves," Salandra said, referring to a lawsuit her organization filed over the city's lack of taxi accommodations.

In response to the suit, the PPA in January released a proposal to have 300 wheelchair-accessible cabs by the end of 2012, and to retrofit all of the city's 1,600 medallion-holders by 2016.

"The industry protested pretty hard against that," said Jim Ney, the PPA's taxi enforcement chief. It costs about $15,000 to make existing taxis wheelchair-accessible, and $40,000 to buy a vehicle already equipped.

Steve Gold, the attorney representing Disabled in Action, said the PPA called off the settlement talks last week.

Until last fall, Philadelphia had no wheelchair-accessible taxis. Freedom Cabs, which also operates in New York, Chicago, and other cities, started the service in October and has since expanded from two to five taxis. In a few weeks, owner Everett Abitbol said, the company will add 10 more.

"We've seen surprisingly huge demand," Abitbol said. "It's a little bit like the Field of Dreams syndrome: If you build it, they will come."

The number of medallions was just one of the bill's flaws, according to Abitbol. He noted that other states have implemented comprehensive plans to mandate driver training, set vehicle standards, and let passengers use their disability benefits to subsidize taxi fares.

"There's more to it than the medallion itself," he said. "Throwing 15 out there without having a plan is like having none at all."

Ney said that starting with a smaller fleet will allow the PPA to gradually build up a comprehensive system. The agency plans to hold public hearings to get input on training, dispatch, and deployment procedures.

The bill, House Bill 2390, also drew the ire of the state's Taxi Workers Alliance. Drivers had threatened to strike on the Fourth of July because the new bill replaces the required "protective barriers" between driver and passenger with a more vague call for "driver security devices."

Miccarelli, whose district includes most of Philadelphia International Airport, said that change was intended to give the PPA flexibility to add new security methods, not necessarily to remove the barriers.

Union president Ron Blount said this week that the strike was called off after the PPA agreed not to change the partition requirement.

The union still opposes the bill for, among other things, allowing the PPA to revoke medallions for any reason and to reject taxis based on age and mileage. "The barriers were the biggest thing, but that other stuff - it's still a bitter pill to swallow," he said.

With taxi medallions currently auctioning at $400,000, the bill is expected to generate $6 million a year for the PPA.

Gov. Corbett plans to sign the bill this week, a spokeswoman said.

Contact Jessica Parks at 215-854-2771 or jparks@philly.com.

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