For People in Wheelchairs, Calling a Cab is Not an Easy Option

July 19, 2011

July 19, 2011
By Arielle Levin Becker, The Connecticut Mirror

When Charles Smyth’s sister called to say that their mother was dying and he should get to her bedside quickly, Smyth had another problem to deal with first: How to get to the hospital. Smyth is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. He regularly takes a paratransit service for people with disabilities, but it must be booked at least a day in advance. On that day, he called to see if the company would make an exception. It wouldn’t. He scoured the Yellow Pages for an alternative.

“That was the first time that I really experienced a complete feeling of hopelessness, helplessness,” said Smyth, who lives in Orange. “Here I was, the father, the breadwinner, the guy that took care of everybody’s problems, and I couldn’t even get down to see my own mother.”

Finally, someone he called referred him to a medical transport service, which took him to the hospital. The ride was less than 7 miles, but cost $75 each way.

“It’s very, very confining to be in a wheelchair and know that you want to get someplace and you just can’t get there,” he said.

Smyth is one of many wheelchair users awaiting a decision from the state Department of Transportation on requests by two cab companies hoping to get 140 wheelchair-accessible taxis. There’s only a handful in the state now, and people who use wheelchairs say their transportation options are limited.

Paratransit services, like the one Smyth uses, give rides in areas served by bus lines, but typically only go within ¾ mile of a bus route. There are dial-a-ride services that aren’t constrained by bus routes, but they usually must be booked at least a day in advance and typically only travel within a town or region; in some areas, people going to medical appointments or other services get priority in scheduling rides. Other transportation-for-hire services can cost hundreds of dollars to go between towns.

The ability to call a cab at any time “just seems like such an amazing thing to be able to do,” said Jade Vail, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She takes a paratransit bus to and from work, scheduling her rides in advance, but worries what she would do if a family member had an emergency. If she gets sick at work, she’s likely to have to wait until her usual departure time for a ride home, and going out with little notice is almost impossible.

“My friends say, ‘How ’bout we go to a movie?'” Vail said. “And I say, ‘Well, you know, I can’t because I don’t have transportation to get there.'”

The proposals by Metro Taxi of West Haven and The Yellow Cab Company of Bloomfield to get 70 wheelchair-accessible taxis each involve federal funding and alternative fuel, and have the support of many people with disabilities. But they’re not a sure thing.

The vehicles they’re hoping to get, called MV-1s, run on compressed natural gas and cost between $40,000 and $45,000–more than most standard cabs. Metro Taxi President Bill Scalzi said the cost can be made up in part from the reduced fueling costs, and in part by a federal grant that will cover the incremental cost of having a vehicle fueled by natural gas. To get the federal money, Scalzi said, the vehicles must be on the road by the end of January.

Metro Taxi and Yellow Cab are seeking permits to operate additional vehicles, which has drawn opposition from other companies. In addition, Metro Taxi is seeking to expand its territory.

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