Fleet of taxicabs built for residents with disabilities take to the streets -- Gazette.Net







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Tears welled up in Patricia Sanders’ eyes as her motorized wheelchair moved down the ramp of an Accessible Taxi cab.

Sanders, the county government’s Americans with Disabilities Act compliance coordinator, said she has been trying to get more handicapped-accessible taxicabs in the county for 17 years. Accessible Taxi rolled out its service in Prince George’s County in April.

“I know that the cabs were a well-needed vehicle in the county,” Sanders said.

Accessible Taxi, a private company based in Capitol Heights, has a fleet of 15 cabs made possible with a $339,000 grant that founder David Mohebbi applied for through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments last year and received in June 2011.

On Tuesday, Sanders and members of the county’s handicapped community toured Accessible Taxi’s Capitol Heights lot, which was lined with 15 vehicles equipped to provide transportation services for disabled residents. Mohebbi says the company will provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and promises to pick up passengers within 30 minutes of a call.

Gloria Jones-Swieringa, a commissioner on the Prince George’s County Commission for Individuals with Disabilities, rode in an Accessible Taxi on Tuesday and said it was the first time she has used a paratransit service outside of MetroAccess, door-to-door paratransit services offered through the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Jones-Swieringa said she has used MetroAccess since the 1990s, and Sanders of Capitol Heights said her access to a bus line and curb cuts makes her less eligible for the MetroAccess services. One of the requirements for using MetroAccess is needing a ramp or lift to board public transportation when a Metrobus isn’t operating on the route or at the time a person needs to travel, according to the WMATA website.

Dan Stessel, chief WMATA spokesman, wrote in an email to The Gazette on Tuesday that his agency is aware of Accessible Taxi and added that WMATA supports “alternatives that make transportation more accessible for people who need it.”

“We need everything that exists in paratransit times 10 because this is a very large community, a very busy community, and many people lead lives that don’t allow them to sit in the house,” Jones-Swieringa said.

Mohebbi, who also is president of Regency Taxi, a separate cab company, said there were 148,000 Prince George’s County residents who were disabled based on 2009 American Community Survey U.S. Census data. About 97,000 county residents use MetroAccess, which requires setting up pickups 24 hours in advance, according to data from WMATA.

When the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, an agency that works to solve problems with issues such as transportation and housing, challenged area businesses in 2011 to apply for grants to expand transportation options for the Washington metropolitan area’s disabled, Mohebbi, a taxicab driver since 1979, heeded the call when he remembered the need for more access in Prince George’s County.

Mohebbi thanked the county government and the Department of Environmental Resources for making a county fleet possible.

“It was an uphill battle to get where we are,” he said.

Prince George’s elderly and disabled residents who use taxicab vouchers for discounted rides through the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation will be able to use those vouchers at Accessible Taxi, according to Korenna Cline, a spokeswoman for Accessible Taxi.

Approximately 3,000 Prince George’s County residents currently use those vouchers for cab rides, Cline said.

Arshad Ali of Greenbelt, an Accessible Taxi driver who generally works mornings, said most of his pickups and dropoffs have been for getting to work and for doctor’s appointments. Ali makes an average of nine trips per day Monday through Friday and five per day Saturdays, he said, but when he has no calls, he waits outside the Greenbelt Metro to see if anyone needs a ride. Ali said many passengers are surprised that they can sit up front and see out the window.

“There is a ramp inside the taxi; if they have a cane, they can walk,” Ali said. “It’s easy for them to get in the car.”

The $339,000 Mohebbi received was a New Freedom Program grant, said Patrick Wojahn, a College Park city councilman and chairman of the human services transportation coordination task force of the Washington, D.C.-based National Capital Area Transportation Planning Board. Mohebbi put $84,000 of his own money into the fleet, and each vehicle costs about $45,000 after state taxes and licensing, Mohebbi said.

“We see 15 cabs,” Wojahn said. “That’s not even going to begin to serve the need, but it’s only the beginning.”

Wheaton resident Carolyn Bellamy, a consumer advocate for MetroAccess, said she wants to see an Accessible Taxi fleet in Montgomery County. Bellamy said she has ridden in cabs that were billed as handicapped accessible but were not compliant. Bellamy said the design was “well thought out” because it’s given her one thing some vehicles cannot: independence to sit where she wants.

“That’s the big thing,” Bellamy said. “I got to relax.”