They're big (5,200 pounds), bright (yellow or orange-striped) and, in the coming weeks, will be navigating the streets of Connecticut.
The new wheelchair-accessible cabs that are expected to soon be on the roads in the Hartford and New Haven areas will dramatically increase the on-demand transportation options for people who use wheelchairs.
But advocates for those with disabilities, who have praised the two cab companies that will operate the accessible cabs, say there's still a problem, the result of two rulings by the state Department of Transportation that denied the companies additional permits to expand their fleets.
"Given the demand that's going to be generated, I don't think the current vehicle numbers are going to be adequate," said Michelle M. Duprey, director of New Haven's Department of Services for Persons with Disabilities. "This is a pretty large community that has not been served at all."
Besides a handful of wheelchair-accessible taxis that operate in some parts of the state, people in wheelchairs who don't have their own vehicles have few flexible public transportation options. Paratransit services provide rides to people with disabilities, but typically only go within ¾ of a mile of a bus route. Dial-a-ride services can take people to more locations, but usually only if they're booked at least a day in advance, and they often only travel within a town or region.
The cab companies, Metro Taxi of West Haven and Bloomfield's Yellow Cab, don't need special permits to operate wheelchair-accessible cabs, known as MV-1s. But, arguing that they were already operating at capacity, the companies applied for 70 additional permits each so the new vehicles could expand their fleets.
DOT ruled against them, saying the companies had not demonstrated a need for new permits and could instead replace existing vehicles with the MV-1s.
Both cab companies plan to do so and have already received some of the new vehicles. They run on compressed natural gas, and some of the cost is expected to be offset by a federal grant that requires the vehicles to be on the road by the end of January.
But the leaders of both companies said the added demand for wheelchair-accessible taxis could hurt service if they can't increase the total number of vehicles they operate.
"If I use them all in my existing fleet, we're going to be in a lot of trouble because there's no way in the world I can take care of the need that I know is going to happen from the disability community and at the same time satisfy what's going on with our current need," said Bill Scalzi, president of Metro Taxi and CEO of its affiliate Metro Access. "When that happens, everybody gets poor service."
Yellow Cab owner Marco Henry said he expects a similar problem, with increased demand from people in wheelchairs that could slow response times for everyone.
Both are asking DOT to reconsider. If not, Scalzi said he will appeal in court.
Henry said he hasn't decided whether to pursue an appeal if necessary or to reapply for new permits.
Scalzi said the hearings had demonstrated a need for additional vehicles. Many people with disabilities spoke of the need for more accessible transportation options, some with personal stories. One man who uses a wheelchair described scrambling to find a ride to see his dying mother in the hospital on short notice. He ultimately resorted to using a medical transport service.
But in her rulings, DOT staff attorney Laila A. Mandour wrote that neither company had shown a need for more vehicles.
"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.
Gregory S. Kimmel, an attorney for Casino Cab of Bridgeport, one of several companies that opposed the applications, said the ruling was on target.
"They presented a case for adding a service, not for adding additional taxicabs," he said. "And the hearing officer saw through it and said they can add that service anytime they want. They just never proved they need additional cabs for that service."
But Daria Smith, executive director of the Connecticut State Independent Living Council, which has been coordinating efforts to urge DOT to reconsider, said adding services without adding cabs isn't enough. Both permit applications also sought to provide service in areas the companies don't currently operate, and Smith said having the companies simply replace existing vehicles with wheelchair-accessible ones doesn't help people in those new areas.
All the pieces are in place to expand transportation options for people with mobility disabilities, she said -- private companies trying to make their cabs accessible at no cost to the state, a federal grant to help fund the purchase of the vehicles, and nonprofits and individuals who support it. The missing piece, she added, is approval for new permits from the DOT, a situation that she said is unlike what has happened in other parts of the country.
"Usually it's the public sector trying to push the private companies to make vehicles accessible," she said.
"In this case," Smith said, "we have two very committed cab companies and individuals that are heading those cab companies that really understand the need for universal access, and that the demographics are changing and over the next 20 to 30 years in Connecticut, we're going to have a population that is living longer."