Federal Funds Back Purchase of 21 Vans for D.C. Fleets
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008; B04
Wheelchair users in the District will have a new way to get around starting in January, thanks to a decision yesterday to fund 21 wheelchair-accessible cabs. Until now, wheelchair users have had to call one of two suburban cab companies, and the taxis are not always available.
"In the District, for emergency evacuations, quick trips, somebody's wheelchair breaks down, what are you going to do?" asked Bobby Coward, 44, a quadriplegic who uses an electric wheelchair. "You don't have an option. So a cab is that solution."
Coward has agitated for accessible cabs and has worked on an accessibility task force under D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose Committee on Public Works and the Environment oversees the D.C. Taxicab Commission.
The decision, made by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, will use $1 million in federal funds to purchase 21 accessible vans and create a centralized dispatch center. Three cab companies will get seven vans each and will pay about 30 percent of the cost of the cabs.
The decision puts the District in line with comparable-size and larger cities, said Wendy Klancher, senior transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"The hope is that once these companies get up and running, the business will be self-sustaining and they won't need any more funding," Klancher said. Roy Spooner, general manager for Yellow Cab Co. of D.C., said he doesn't expect the accessible taxis to be profitable. "We feel it's something that we need to do as part of our social service offering," he said.
Liberty Cab and the Mohebbi Group also will have the accessible vans.
Not everybody on the transportation board was convinced of the need for the
vans. "If these [taxi] companies were being hit by requests, they'd have come up
with something already," said Charles A. Jenkins, a commissioner in Frederick County , who was one of two members of the 42-member board to oppose the proposal.
Leon J. Swain, chairman of the Taxicab Commission, called the decision "a real victory for D.C." The commission will contribute about $200,000 to the effort.
Though all buses and Metro stations in the District are wheelchair accessible, station elevators are often broken, and bus drivers won't always stop for people in wheelchairs when the bus is crowded, Coward said. There are also MetroAccess paratransit vans, but they must be booked at least 24 hours in advance, and not all wheelchair users are eligible to use them.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who is quadriplegic and uses an electric wheelchair, usually makes his way around the District in a van and welcomed yesterday's decision.
"There was a day, for example, when my van for whatever reason didn't work, and I had to use the Metro," he said. "It would have been really nice to have that option to call a cab -- using one of the regular cabs around here would never have been an option for me."
Coward, the disability activist, found himself stranded one day last summer when his electric wheelchair broke down near Alabama Avenue and Seventh Street SE.
"I had to call my uncle," Coward said. "He brought his car -- it took him an hour and 20 minutes."
Coward's wheelchair couldn't fit in the car, and it was too heavy to push by hand. So Coward had his uncle push him down the street with the car.
"We would get so many stares," Coward said. And then they passed the 7th Police District station.
"They went ballistic," Coward said. "Like, you can't be pushing a wheelchair with a car. . . . As fate would have it, a MetroAccess vehicle happened to drive by" and offered him a ride.
He would rather have called a taxi.
"Imagine if I was in inclement weather," Coward said. "Good thing it was a great day."
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