Sixty new wheelchair-accessible taxicabs, most operated by a new company with a fleet of vans serving people with disabilities, won the right Saturday to operate in Arlington County.

The County Board agreed to award 50 certificates to the new All Access Taxi company and 10 to Blue Top Cab. All Access officials say it is the first all-wheelchair-
accessible cab company in the region. They plan to have their first vehicles on the road by February, with most operating by April.

The action increases the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis available to Arlington customers from 37 to 97.

At the County Board meeting, residents and activists complained that when they need a cab that can accommodate a wheelchair user, they often have faced waits of more than three hours.

The majority of the cabs now certified for wheelchair use, operated by Red Top Cab Co., are often tied up fulfilling contracts with groups that provide non-emergency medical and paratransit trips. But Red Top Cab owner Charlie King said a three-hour wait would be “an abberation.”

Taxis wait for passengers at National Airport in Arlington in 2012. The Arlington County Board agreed to award 60 new certificates for wheelchair-accessible taxicabs, raising the number from 37 to 97. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Wheelchair users and organizations that lobby on their behalf said there is great need for taxis that can respond within a reasonable period for unscheduled, “spontaneous” trips around the county. County officials said 70 percent of the time, those wheelchair-accessible taxis are ferrying people who don’t use wheelchairs. While anyone can be transported in vans meant for people with disabilities, the opposite is not true, speakers noted.

“An SUV is not an accessible taxicab. A sedan is not an accessible taxicab,” said Lee Page of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. A wheelchair user, Page said he recently injured himself trying to get into the front seat of regular taxi, requiring weeks of physical therapy. “What we’re talking about is freedom, accessibility and independence.”

The once-staid, government-regulated taxicab industry is undergoing massive change with the introduction of unregulated ride-sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber. Virginia granted those companies temporary operating permits in the summer; permanent regulatory legislation is expected to be introduced in Richmond next year.

Arlington now has 787 taxis, slightly more than the number in Alexandria or in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. The District has more than 6,500 licensed taxis.

Three companies had sought 115 new certificates from Arlington, including 35 for standard cabs, but county officials recommended only 40. The staff report proposed awarding 30 certificates to All Access and 10 to Blue Top.

All Access Taxi’s Julie Pische and Rick Vogel said they would need at least 50 cabs to build a successful business and provide quick response to customers throughout the 26-square-mile county. In the end, that’s what they got.

County Board members, in a series of votes, wrestled over the right number of certificates to award. John Vihstadt (I) wanted to allow 115 new cabs. Libby Garvey (D), Vihstadt’s usual ally, said she was only willing to add 40. The board’s chair, Jay Fisette (D), worried that drivers, most of whom buy and maintain their cars as well as pay fees to the cab companies, were bearing all the risk if too many cabs flood the market. J. Walter Tejada (D) agreed, saying that drivers should be able to earn a living wage.

The vice chair, Mary H. Hynes (D), proposed 60 new certificates, all for wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Her proposal passed 3 to 2, with Garvey and Fisette opposed. The board then unanimously passed the main motion.