People with disabilities fight for accessible taxis in New Haven

Americas, March 3 2011

Mar 03: Nearly a dozen wheelchair users crowded a state Department of Transportation hearing room last week in a plea to get accessible taxis in the New Haven and Bridgeport area.

Dana Canebari, of New Haven, uses a walker and says she doesn’t use regular taxi service, because her walker won’t fit in a car.

“It is dehumanizing that I need to explain why we need transportation so that I can go grocery shopping and get a manicure and throw a party,” she testified. “I’m sorry, but it’s rude.”

Canebari and others were speaking on behalf of West Haven-based Metro Taxi, which has applied for 70 new taxi certificates. Metro says it will use all of them for handicap accessible cabs.

But other area taxi business owners worry that Metro Taxi is just paying lip service to the disabled and will use the new certificates to claim a greater share of the cab market.

In Connecticut, the state licenses and regulates taxi businesses. To get a certificate to operate even just one taxi, a person must prove that he or she is “suitable,” financially able and that a need exists for new or expanded taxi business.

Metro Taxi has the largest taxi operation in the area with 161 taxis. Even with that market command, Metro’s owner, Bill Scalzi, has requested “intervenor” status in at least four taxi companies’ bids to expand their business within the last two years. Intervenors can question the business owner and any witnesses as if they were a lawyer at trial. Intervenors can also testify against the taxi company trying to expand. An intervenor’s goal is usually to prevent another taxi company from growing and creating more competition. After trying to prevent others from growing their business, some taxi companies say Scalzi’s bid for more taxis is hypocritical.

The handicapped and elderly can apply for a service called para transit. Para transit, or “My Ride” as its called in the New Haven area, is the state’s way of providing equal public transportation service to the disabled. But My Ride is limited to the routes and hours of service that public buses operate in each town—meaning that in New Haven, where public transportation is decent, the handicapped have better options than a wheelchair-bound person would have in say, Seymour or North Haven. Because there’s such a high demand for para transit, riders need to make reservations one week in advance; there is no same-day service.

“My Ride is great but it’s not perfect,” testified Charles Smyth of Orange. Smyth, a burly white-haired man in an electric wheelchair, told the room that a few years ago he received a phone call from his sister: “Come quick, mom is dying.” His mother was at Griffin Hospital, six miles away, and My Ride wouldn’t make an exception. He was able to get a ride from a private ambulance service, but it cost $75 each way.

“This may come as a shock to some, but not the handicapped,” Smyth testified. “This is a way of life for us.”

Smyth says he’s used Metro Taxi’s one handicapped-accessible taxi to go to his sister’s house. It cost $13.50 for the four-mile ride. There have been three other times when he would have liked to take that taxi, but it was booked in advance.

“Sometimes I wake up and I just want to go somewhere,” he says. “One handicap taxi is not adequate.”

Richard Famiglietti (pictured), of East Haven, echoed that sentiment. Famiglietti volunteers at the West Haven-based Center for Disability Rights. He has his own car, but was recently in an accident and, while waiting for a rental car, used the accessible Metro Taxi.

“The only issue was availability,” he says. The taxi was also servicing the able-bodied, the driver told Famiglietti, “otherwise he’d go broke” because he owes a lease fee to Metro Taxi every week.

Famiglietti thinks the other taxi companies opposed to Metro’s plans “are coming from those companies that don’t have new fleets. Their argument is there’d be no demand [for service] or that we can’t afford it.” Famiglietti is offended by that.

Transportation for the handicapped is such a major problem that it’s difficult for the Center for Disability Rights to hold board meetings.

“I can’t tell you how many meetings we’ve had — from 6 to 8:30 p.m. — when people’s rides were picking them up at 7:45 or 8 to leave because that’s when My Ride ends,” says Famiglietti.

Some small taxi operators say Scalzi’s using the handicap accessible taxis as a cover to get an additional 70 taxis on the road and to expand his taxi empire.

Last week, while the handicapped witnesses shared their stories, intervenors Ray Longlo of Bridgeport’s Yellow Cab and Abel Mansour of Valley Cab Company vented in the DOT’s cafeteria over a cup of coffee.

“Drive by [Scalzi’s] headquarters,” suggests Longlo, who has about 45 cabs. “At any given time he’s got 30 to 40 cars sitting there doing nothing. He could service the disabled with the existing cars he has.”

Mansour, who owns nine cabs, says he has nothing against the handicapped.

“They need transportation too. But [Scalzi] won’t use this [license] for that.”

Mansour says he hopes the DOT gives Scalzi a restricted license that only allows Metro to use the accessible cabs for serving the handicapped.

“He just wants more authority, more certificates.”

Mansour argues that the 32 towns in which Metro Taxi is asking to operate wheelchair-accessible taxis are “already serviced.” “We feel for these people but the government has handicapped buses in each location,” Mansour says.

In 30 years of business in seven Valley towns, Mansour says he’s rarely seen handicapped customers.

Longlo adds that he’s had clients in wheelchairs, but admits that he’s unable to serve those who can’t get out of their wheelchair.

In an interview, Scalzi says that his cars are “fully utilized.” If he can’t get the additional permits, he won’t convert existing taxis into handicap-accessible taxis because that would hurt his existing customer base.

“I would hope that the opposing companies … who’ve listened to the cries of this community for this type of transportation would have at least been convinced that there’s an incredible demand for this service,” Scalzi says.

Scalzi says the inspiration to provide handicap accessible transportation came from a New Haven Register article 14 years ago: A young girl had been paralyzed in a car accident and neighbors helped pay for a wheelchair ramp from her house to the sidewalk.

“I’ll never forget thinking: Where does she go from there? If the family can’t afford a ramp, they can’t afford an accessible vehicle. That’s when I decided we needed accessible taxi cabs,” Scalzi says.

First, he lobbied the legislature to change the law that said wheelchair accessible transportation required a large, 15-passenger high-toped van. That took 12 years.

Now the law says if the vehicle passes the state Department of Motor Vehicle standards and meets the Americans with Disability Act guidelines, then it can transport the handicapped.

Meanwhile, the City of New Haven’s Disability Services Office was working on getting accessible taxis to New Haven.

The National Taxi Organization suggested that the city contact Metro Taxi. Soon City Hall, Metro, the state and the Greater New Haven Transit District applied for a grant to finance the purchase of two accessible taxis. The grant also offered a voucher program that allows disabled people to register with the transit district and receive a 50 percent discount on taxi service.

Metro Taxi also got a grant from the federal Department of Energy to buy environmentally friendly natural gas vehicles. All the wheelchair-accessible taxis Metro plans to buy will run on natural gas. The new taxis will be MV-1s, the first vehicle made specifically for wheelchairs. It can carry three “able bodied” passengers and two wheelchairs.

In 2009, Metro Taxi bought one wheelchair-accessible taxi on their own.

“We, of course, were thrilled,” says Disability Services head Michele Duprey. “This,” she says in reference to Metro Taxi’s new application, “is the crown on the project.”


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