For people in wheelchairs, calling a cab is not an easy option

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.

Gregory S. Kimmel, an attorney who represents Casino Cab Company of Bridgeport, said no one disputes that people with disabilities could use more transportation options. His client’s concern is the way Metro Taxi wants to provide it–seeking additional permits, rather than replacing existing vehicles with wheelchair-accessible ones. Kimmel said the local market doesn’t need 70 more cabs.

“I think this is an end-around way for them to try and get additional permits,” he said. “Yes, they want to service the physically disabled community, but they want the additional permits for overall taxiing.”

Cromwell-based Executive 2000 Transportation has two wheelchair-accessible taxi vans, and co-owner Sairah Ali Sandhu said there is no need for more in the state. The company frequently uses the vans for people who do not use wheelchairs because they only get six to 10 jobs involving people in wheelchairs per week, Sandhu said.

Michael Sanders, transit administrator at the Department of Transportation, said there’s nothing stopping Metro Taxi and Yellow Cab from using the wheelchair-accessible taxis now; they would just have to use them in place of other vehicles they operate.

But Scalzi and Yellow Cab President Marco Henry said their fleets are already busy and that meeting the demand for wheelchair-accessible cabs without additional vehicles could hurt their existing service.

Metro Taxi got a wheelchair-accessible taxi in 2009, and has since added two more. Scalzi said one covered 6,000 miles in its first week on the road–nearly five times as many as most taxis average–serving mostly people in wheelchairs.

“I believe that there is an absolutely incredible pent up demand for this type of service,” he said.

Michelle M. Duprey, director of New Haven’s Department of Services for Persons with Disabilities, has been working for years to get wheelchair-accessible taxis, and says it’s a matter of civil rights.

“Currently the options for people with mobility disabilities are pretty narrow,” she said. “There’s definitely a need for on-demand transportation.”

Wheelchair-accessible buses and paratransit services represent an improvement over what was available years ago, said Stan Kosloski, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

“But that still leaves a lot of the state uncovered,” said Kosloski, the executive director of the Connecticut Disability Advocacy Collaborative.

Kosloski said it’s common to hear stories about dial-a-ride or paratransit services being late to pick a person up or leaving someone waiting hours for the return trip home. He once helped a woman who needed to see a doctor in another town, which involved crossing transit district lines. The woman had to take one paratransit service to another town, then get a ride to the doctor’s office from another paratransit service.

Accessible taxis won’t be a panacea, but they will provide new opportunities, Kosloski said.

“It’s not going to be cheap. It’s not going to be the cost of the paratransit service,” he said. “But at the same time, it is going to allow people to do things they haven’t been able to do before.”

Vail, who lives in Manchester and works as an advocate at Independence Unlimited in Hartford, which helps people with disabilities live independently, has seen how limited transportation affects the people her agency serves. Some come to the office and spend hours waiting for a trip home. Others don’t come to activities or trainings the agency provides because they can’t get there, or can’t get there reliably.

“Efficient, reliable, safe transportation is something that so many people take for granted,” she said. “And when you don’t have it, it can really put limits on your ability to enjoy life and be a productive, contributing member of society and your community.”

Joe Cohan, 23, takes one of Metro Taxi’s three accessible cabs once a week from his home in Madison to his internship in West Haven. It works well, he said, except for the limited number of cabs. He hopes having more will make it easier to schedule a ride.

When Cohan was in college, the state Bureau of Rehabilitation Services paid for his trips to and from Southern Connecticut State University–in a medical transit vehicle, which he said was uneconomical. “It was sort of overkill,” he said. “I just needed a ride.”