Wheelchair-accessible taxicabs are expected to hit the streets by November in Rhode Island, according to Mark Therrien, assistant GM, planning, for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA).
Originally planning to begin the pro-gram in September, RIPTA had settled on buying Chrysler minivans. However, because RIPTA plans to buy 10 vans, the vehicles must pass Altoona testing; a process which the vans previously selected had not gone through. As a result, Therrien said the bidding was set to open again in early June.
The 10 wheelchair-accessible cabs will be distributed among six taxicab companies in the state, all of which are small companies, according to Therrien. RIPTA will pay for 80 percent of the cost of the van cabs through funds from New Freedom, a federal grant through the Federal Transit Administration's transportation safety funding.
Therrien said RIPTA is hopeful that the program will become self-sufficient, especially if the grant is not renewed.
"We're definitely doing this as a seed program," Therrien said. "We hope [the cab companies] will see there's enough business and want to buy their own accessible vehicles in the future."
The van cabs will work similar to most wheelchair-accessible vans, with a side door ramp and a locking system to secure the chairs. The vehicles can seat one wheelchair, which came as a result of a compromise with the cab companies. Therrien said the cab companies wanted to ensure enough trunk space for airport travelers, as well as be able to use the cabs for regular service.
The vans' lifespan will follow government regulations of four years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. After this mark, Therrien said the van cabs will be turned over to the cab companies. Taxicab regulations allow cabs to be active up to 200,000 miles.
The vans also are intended to be used as part of the state's paratransit fleet, according to Therrien.
Wheelchair-accessible taxicabs were made mandatory by the Rhode Island Legislature in 2007. The Coderre bill requires that 2 percent of a cab company's fleet must be wheelchair accessible. There are no taxicab requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Therrien said RIPTA and several disabled-related organizations had been meeting for quite some time before the law went into effect.
Further, because RIPTA understands both cab regulations and government fleet regulations, Therrien said it became a good ally for the cab companies.
Rhode Island community members have already heard about the new taxicabs, and Therrien said the cab companies as well as RIPTA have already been receiving queries.
Marie Perna, founder of Accessible Rhode Island, a nonprofit that aggregates information on accessible services and businesses in the state, said she has been following the issue for several years.
"This came from a need for a more accessible Rhode Island," said Perna, who in September 2010 stepped away from the nonprofit and founded the Multiple Sclerosis Dream Center with her husband.
Perna called her own efforts with Accessible Rhode Island and the efforts of RIPTA in creating the wheelchair-accessible taxicabs "a labor of love."
The MS Dream Center sees about 30 people daily, and Perna hopes the taxicabs will make access to her center easier. Perna added that in the past she has had to turn down disabled community members for services because they weren't close enough to a regular RIPTA bus route for traveling.
"You'd have to be in a wheelchair full time to understand the value of such an opportunity," Perna said, "And, many of our members are in such a condition."
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