DOT denies permits for new wheelchair-accessible cabs

The state Department of Transportation has denied the requests of two taxi companies for permits to add 70 wheelchair-accessible cabs to each of their fleets, ruling that the companies had not demonstrated the need for new permits and could instead replace existing vehicles with accessible ones.

The proposals by Metro Taxi of West Haven and The Yellow Cab Company of Bloomfield had drawn strong support from people with disabilities, who said there are few, if any, wheelchair-accessible options for on-demand transportation in the state. One man who uses a wheelchair spoke of having to scramble to find a ride to see his dying mother in the hospital on short notice, ultimately having to call a medical transport service.

But other cab companies opposed the proposal, arguing that while people with disabilities could use more transportation options, the companies did not need to increase the size of their fleets to provide them. Gregory S. Kimmel, an attorney for Casino Cab Company of Bridgeport, which opposed Metro Taxi’s application, said earlier this year that the proposal represented “an end-around way for them to try and get additional permits.”

In denying the applications, DOT Staff Attorney Laila A. Mandour noted that there is nothing preventing either company from replacing cabs in their existing fleets with wheelchair-accessible vehicles, which can serve people with or without disabilities. The owners of both companies said their fleets were already operating at capacity, but Mandour wrote that the evidence presented suggested that they could provide more rides.

“There is no dispute that access to transportation should be made available to all citizens of the State,” she wrote in the decision on Metro Taxi’s application. “However, an application for 70 vehicles to be added to the taxicab market is not the way to achieve the results that the witnesses spoke in favor of at the hearing”

Mandour also wrote that adding 70 cabs could destabilize the market. But she encouraged Metro Taxi and Yellow Cab to put accessible vehicles into service through their existing permits.

Both Metro Taxi and Yellow Cab had planned to buy vehicles known as MV-1s that run on compressed natural gas and cost between $40,000 and $45,000, significantly more than most standard cabs. They had expected to cover part of the cost through a federal grant that would pay for the incremental cost of having natural-gas vehicles.

But Bill Scalzi, president of Metro Taxi and president and CEO of its affiliate Metro Access, said that if the vehicles are not purchased by January, “the State of Connecticut loses this one-time opportunity to expand wheelchair-accessible taxi service throughout Connecticut.”

Scalzi said he was “shocked and deeply disheartened” by the department’s decision.

He called the testimony during hearings in March compelling. “Individuals with mobility disabilities spoke of isolation, frustration, depression, loneliness, separateness, injustice, inequality–a keen sense of being cut off from society and the vital pulse of life’s spontaneous pleasures,” Scalzi said in a statement. “We heard descriptions of people getting stranded and having no way to get home, people hoping to get a job if they had taxi service, having to take an ambulance to attend a parent’s funeral, or an elderly man who hadn’t been out of his house for six months at a time.”

He noted that demographic data suggests that more than 170,000 state residents have a mobility disability, and said that when Metro Access introduced its first wheelchair-accessible taxi in 2009, “That one taxi unleashed pent-up demand of seismic proportion.”

“How much more ‘need and necessity’ must the DOT see?” he added.

Michelle M. Duprey, director of New Haven’s department of services for persons with disabilities, said she and other people in the disability community will meet Tuesday to discuss their options, which include legal action.

“Everybody that has been involved in this process and this project and heard about the taxis is just stunned,” she said, adding that she thought the hearings demonstrated a significant need and an opportunity to expand options for people with disabilities.

“If it had been a different community getting up and having dozens of people testify that they need it, they probably would’ve gotten the permits,” she said.

Duprey noted that even if Metro Taxi appeals the ruling, there won’t be a decision before the expiration of the federal grant that would have funded a portion of the vehicles.

“It’s a shame to see government stymie creativity of private organizations that are trying to serve an underserved community,” she said.

There are currently a handful of wheelchair-accessible taxis operating in the state, including three operated by Metro Access. People who use wheelchairs can get rides from paratransit services, but they typically only go within ¾ mile of a bus route. Dial-a-ride services go to more locations, but they usually must be booked at least a day in advance and typically only travel within a town or region. There are other transportation-for-hire services, but they can cost hundreds of dollars to go between towns.

Many people testified at the hearings about the need for more wheelchair-accessible transportation options, but in the ruling on the Metro Taxi application, Mandour noted that several people who testified did not have knowledge of whether the existing service meets the needs of the general population of the area.

She also took issue with the calculations used by Metro Taxi to project the need for additional vehicles. Mandour wrote that the company extrapolated based on statistics on the population with mobility disabilities in New Haven and Connecticut to show demand for more than 1,500 additional trips per day, but did not provide direct evidence to support the calculation. To show a need for new cab service, she wrote, the applicants would have to demonstrate a need in terms of public convenience and necessity, such as by showing that existing cab services are poor, or that people faced excessive wait times or were unable to get services at all.

“While there was testimony from the numerous witnesses that they are in favor and support accessible taxicab services throughout the state, there were only a handful of witnesses who actually stated that they would use taxicab service,” Mandour wrote.

In denying Yellow Cab’s request for permits, Mandour wrote that owner Marco Henry had submitted inaccurate information to document the number of trips his cabs made during each shift. He testified that his fleet is at capacity making 14 trips per shift, but Mandour said the standard for full utilization is 20 trips, leaving room in the existing fleet to accommodate increased demand.

“The issue comes down to the current taxicab companies’ business decision of using accessible vehicles to provide taxicab service, not whether they should be available or if there is a need,” Mandour wrote.

Henry did not respond to a call for comment Monday.