Accessible MV-1 cabs, like this one in service in Prince George’s County, could soon be plying D.C.’s streets. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Updated 6/12 to correct the average cost of a MetroAccess ride

Thousands of District residents who use MetroAccess, the regional paratransit service, could soon start taking their rides in private taxicabs rather than the red-white-and-blue shared vans now ubiquitous on city streets.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission voted Wednesday on a package of regulations creating a “Coordinated Alternative to Paratransit Services” — the culmination of more than two years of discussion about replacing MetroAccess rides with cheaper, more convenient cab rides. And a major side benefit of the deal, Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron M. Linton said Tuesday, will be putting many more wheelchair-accessible cabs on the street in the coming years — helping to address a frequent complaint about city taxi service from advocates for the disabled.

The commission voted to circulate the draft regulations for comment pending a final agreement between the District and Metro on the paratransit ride arrangement. The new program could begin as soon as Oct. 1.

The agreement now being finalized, Linton said, could put 100,000 rides a year to and from dialysis clinics in taxicabs rather than shared vans. At an average savings of more than $20 a ride, Linton said — $56 for a van ride vs. $33 for a taxi ride — that means millions in savings on the city’s Metro subsidy.

There’s a catch: When the taxi program begins, MetroAccess users might still find themselves hitching a ride in one of the old vans, because about 30 of them will be converted into metered taxis. And only certain taxi companies — those with a central dispatching operation — would be eligible to participate.

Under the program sketched out in the regulations, taxi companies would be eligible for a $4,800 grant to acquire the vans. Then, after completing 3,000 rides under the paratransit program, the companies would have to purchase a “new wheelchair accessible vehicle with side-door accessibility and a power ramp, propelled exclusively by compressed natural gas.” (Only one production vehicle, incidentally, meets those requirements: The MV-1, which has previously been floated in the D.C. market. “We don’t want anything that isn’t fuel-efficient; we don’t want a converted vehicle,” Linton explained, though he said the commission is “open to hearing other proposals.”)

The experience for MetroAccess users could be much improved if the new program works as planned. Rather than call a day ahead for a ride, Linton said, users will be able to call for service up to an hour beforehand. The rides would be private, not shared, and users would pay with a special debit card, he said; the out-of-pocket cost would be $5 per ride versus $7 for a standard MetroAccess ride.

If the program works out, Linton said, it could quickly expand beyond the scope of the original agreement. “This is going to move us pretty quickly into the forefront of service,” he said. “We can’t carry the whole thing, but we can carry a lot more than these 100,000 dialysis rides.”