N.Va. Cab Company to Halt Transport of Disabled, Aged

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

A Virginia taxicab company that provides about 700 trips a week for the region's disabled transit riders plans to stop service after the weekend because of pay disputes with the company that operates MetroAccess, cab company officials said.

The decision was made by Red Top Cab Co. in Arlington and its affiliate, Yellow Cab in Fairfax County.

Nikki Frenney, a spokeswoman for MV Transportation, which operates MetroAccess, confirmed the taxi company's withdrawal and said MV has begun reassigning trips. Service could be delayed, she said, for "a minimal number of customers" in Virginia on Monday.

A spokeswoman for the Metro transit agency, which is responsible for managing the $210 million contract with MV, said officials plan to intervene and meet with representatives of all parties to reach a "favorable resolution."

MetroAccess is a public transportation system that provides a shared-ride service for about 16,000 elderly residents and people with disabilities, most of whom live in suburban Maryland and Virginia. Most of the rides are provided by drivers working for MV Transportation and its paratransit subcontractors.

But about 14 percent of MetroAccess service comes from taxicabs. Red Top provides up to 100 MetroAccess trips a day out of about 4,500 on a typical weekday, officials said. Several riders have said they prefer taxis because rides are not shared and drivers tend to be more familiar with the streets.

After MV took over the service Jan. 15, the transit agency received record numbers of complaints about missed and late trips, circuitous routes and poor customer service. Three major cab companies that have provided MetroAccess rides have complained about late reimbursement. MV gave them "good faith" payments while pleading for additional time to process invoices, cab company officials said. The taxi companies reimburse the drivers and then submit invoices to MV.

Last week, MV informed Red Top that a significant portion of charges would not be reimbursed because MV calculated many trips to be much shorter in distance than Red Top submitted. Red Top's marketing director, Von Pelot, said MV's computation method defied common sense and would mean the company could stand to lose $90,000 in reimbursements.

A trip from Pennsylvania Avenue NW in downtown Washington to the center of Reston, for example, was nearly 20 miles on the taxi meter and cost about $40. Under MV's calculation, "it was a 3.54-mile trip," Pelot said. Using that distance, MV said it would reimburse Red Top about $9. "That's absolutely preposterous," Pelot said.

Red Top's letter of understanding with MV calls for charges to be measured by the taxi meter in accordance with rates in the counties where it operates, Pelot said.

Two other taxi companies are having similar disputes with MV, their officials said. They say their drivers often take the quickest routes but not necessarily the shortest, in the interest of passengers.

MV spokeswoman Frenney said the taxis are supposed to take the most "direct" route. "We are finding that some are not doing that and then are expecting a higher reimbursement rate," she said. "This is a cause for many of the discrepancies and delays" in reviewing the invoices. She said Red Top has been paid more than $230,000 since mid-January.

Lee Barnes, the owner of Barwood, the dominant taxi provider in Montgomery County, said his company provides about 800 MetroAccess trips a week. Based on MV's initial calculations, he said, about 30 to 40 percent of Barwood's trips would not be reimbursed.

Metro pays MV a flat rate of $19.61 for each taxi trip. But the average MetroAccess trip costs Barwood about $32, Barnes said. Given the difference, MV would "have every reason to force taxis to get less," he said. If Barwood cannot work out the differences, he said, service could be affected.

The third taxi company, Taxi-Taxi Inc. of Landover, said that it had the same disputes with MV and discovered that many disputed trips were a result of MV's computer glitches. Those have since been satisfactorily resolved, according to John Lally, who represents Taxi-Taxi.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company