Taxi cabs wait for passengers at Union Station. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Washington has an abundance of taxicabs — more cabs per capita than almost any other major city in America. But it has too few taxis that are easily accessible to people in wheelchairs, according to the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

“A lot of cabdrivers don’t like carrying wheelchair people because it takes more time to get them in, get them out, and they think that time costs them money,” said Ron M. Linton, the commission chairman.

“So we’re setting up a program we think is going to change that.”

He was referring to a program that could begin on a relatively modest scale in the fall, designed to save millions of dollars for the District while increasing the number of wheelchair-accessible taxi-vans on the streets of the nation’s capital.

In its early phase — a pilot program, possibly starting in October — kidney-dialysis patients (in wheelchairs or not) who live in the District and use Metro’s paratransit service would have the option of riding in any of 33 accessible taxi-vans that would be added to the city’s cab fleet.

The fares generally would be lower than on Metro’s service, called MetroAccess, officials said, and riders would be able to book trips on shorter notice. If the program works, Linton and others said, it could be expanded in coming years.

The transit agency likes the idea. The Taxicab Commission voted Wednesday to move ahead with it. And Patrick Sheehan, chairman of citizens committee that advises Metro on accessibility issues, called the plan “a win-win situation for all.”

The impetus for the program is the high cost of running the transit authority’s MetroAccess service, which no one enjoys paying for.

MetroAccess provides van transportation for people who aren’t physically able to use buses or trains or would be frightened to do so because of their disabilities. The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates the service in the District and other cities with public transit systems. About 32,000 people are qualified and registered to use MetroAccess in the eight Washington-area jurisdictions served by Metro.

Riders pay double what the fare would be for a bus or subway ride between the same two points, up to a ceiling of $7 (to become $6.50 when Metro’s new budget takes effect at the start of July). The service is far from self-sustaining. The transit authority estimates that during the fiscal year that ends June 30, it will have provided 1.9 million MetroAccess rides at a cost of $114 million, while collecting $8 million in fares.

So, on average, one of those 1.9 million rides will cost taxpayers $56.

Local governments pay the transit authority for MetroAccess rides taken by people in their jurisdictions. The District’s bill for the current fiscal year probably will amount to just over $20 million, according to Metro. The program involving the Taxicab Commission is meant to steer some D.C. residents away from Metro’s paratransit service.

“To the extent that the District can lower the number of people using MetroAccess, that’s a direct benefit to the city,” said Christian Kent, Metro’s assistant general manager for access services. “It’s not Metro saving money; it’s the District.”

The Taxicab Commission hopes to enlist at least two cab companies to participate in the pilot program starting in the fall, Linton said.

With grants from the commission, the companies would buy 33 older-model MetroAccess vans from the transit agency, Linton said. The vans would be painted like taxis. The cabdrivers assigned to them would receive training on how to deal with riders with disabilities. Then they would take to the streets.

Initially, the taxi-vans would be primarily for people who currently use MetroAccess to travel to and from kidney-dialysis clinics.

A taxi-van would be available on an hour’s notice, compared with the 24-hour advance booking required by MetroAccess, Linton said. Dialysis patients have problems with MetroAccess when treatments run late. A MetroAccess van shows up as scheduled to take a patient home, but the patient isn’t ready and the van has to leave.

The taxi-van rider would pay a flat-rate $5 fee, and the city would pay the rest, Linton said. He said the cost to D.C. taxpayers would be much less than the average $56 a ride the District government pays for MetroAccess trips.

And when the taxi-vans aren’t being used by dialysis patients, they would be in service as taxis available to anyone, including D.C. residents in wheelchairs. Those customers would pay normal meter rates for their rides.

One wrinkle for participating cab companies: “We’re requiring them to buy new, $50,000 vehicles after every 3,000 rides, with their own money,” Linton said.

Taking into account that capital expense — along with cost of driver training — the commission has set the price of a kidney-dialysis trip at $38, Linton said. After riders pay $5, the city would pay the companies $33 a trip. But the $33 paid for taxi-van service would be more than offset by the $56 the city wouldn’t have to pay for MetroAccess.

Linton estimates that the program, in its early phase, would save the city $2 million a year. Later, if the program were expanded beyond MetroAccess users who are dialysis patients, the savings would grow. Meanwhile, there would be more wheelchair-accessible taxis in the city for people with disabilities who aren’t MetroAccess clients and just happen to need a cab.

Only about four cab companies are large enough, with sufficient financial resources, to participate and also have the central-dispatching system that the program requires, Linton said. He said he hopes at least two will sign on for the program.

Eventually, he and others said, the program could be implemented in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs served by Metro.

“It’s something we’re very much in favor of,” said Sheehan, chairman of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee. “It’s going to improve the quality of life for a lot of people, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

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