The new ride-service regulations the Seattle City Council seems poised to approve Monday — to finally legalize services such as uberX, Lyft and Sidecar — have been called disastrous by many in the area’s taxi industry.
But not all taxi owners consider the rules a death blow to their business, especially not owners of King County’s 45 wheelchair-accessible taxis.
The new city ordinance would create a 10-cent surcharge on every ride originating in Seattle with uberX, Lyft, Sidecar, nonwheelchair-accessible taxis and for-hire companies, and pour that money into a fund to defray the cost of owning and driving a wheelchair-accessible taxi. Annual licensing fees for the accessible vehicles also would be waived.
The intent is to make it more attractive to own a wheelchair-accessible taxi and ensure that the vehicles are on the street as much as possible. Owners would use the fund to offset the expense of buying, retrofitting and maintaining the vans; and drivers could be reimbursed for the extra fuel and time involved in providing wheelchair-accessible trips. The council’s ordinance leaves it up to the city’s Finance and Administrative Services department to determine how much drivers and owners would receive.
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Denise Movius, deputy director of the finance department, said owners hope the surcharge brings in at least $850,000 during the first year.
Owners of the taxis argued in negotiations with the mayor’s office that, without financial help, wheelchair-accessible ride services might go out of business. And, right now, increasingly popular ride services uberX, Lyft and Sidecar don’t offer the same level of accessibility and have no plans to offer it.
Mike Judd, owner and driver of an accessible van for Yellow Cab, says that even before the use of other ride services took off last year, he worked with a lot of competitive disadvantages. Judd says owning, maintaining and buying gas for an accessible taxi costs much more than for a regular vehicle.
The incentive for driving one used to be that most business still would come from ordinary trips — not those with disabled passengers who require some extra time and care. But with uberX, Lyft and Sidecar eating up so much of that business lately, the incentive has almost completely dried up. Judd also doesn’t have the option of converting his accessible taxi into a regular taxi because he was given the license on the condition he would prioritize offering services to the disabled.
On average, a new and fully equipped van can cost more than $40,000 and drivers can end up spending $15,000 more on gas a year than a standard taxi driver would, said Dawn Gearhart, spokeswoman for Teamsters Local 117. The Teamsters assisted the Western Washington Taxicab Operators Association in negotiations with the mayor’s office.
If a physically disabled person calls from all the way out in Enumclaw, drivers of accessible vans are required by law to pick them up — even if they’re in the middle of downtown Seattle 40 miles away. That passenger may need only a short trip to the grocery store before the driver heads back to Seattle, passengerless and losing money for another hour.
“Last night I dropped off a fare a good distance south of Issaquah in the middle of nowhere — out where the cougars and the bears roam,” said Judd, who says he doesn’t have the money to replace a van that has more than 400,000 miles on it. “Then, because I was the closest to Redmond, I got a call from dispatch saying I’d have to go 30 miles north way up there on Novelty Hill Road.”
Judd said he’s hoping he might be able to use the funds collected from the new surcharge to at least help him buy a new van as soon as possible.
A wheelchair-accessible-taxi owner might also be sitting in the front seat as Yellow Cab and its dispatch arm, Puget Sound Dispatch, prepare for a new era of competition. Although van owner Amin Shifow would not confirm the change in leadership last week, several taxi owners and drivers say Shifow has been named the new general manager of Puget Sound Dispatch.
Steven Lewis, board president of the Alliance of People with disAbilities, said he supports the new charge. He said that although many people in wheelchairs find bus service and King County Metro’s Access Transportation sufficient to get around, it’s not for everyone. Catching one of those services also tends to involve waiting for more than an hour to be picked up.
“If they can’t charge more for offering those services, then charging some fee is fair,” said Lewis. “How do you keep a cab company wanting to offer this if they can’t make any money off of it?”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or email@example.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.