The city is proposing to more than triple the amount of money it collects on behalf of owners and drivers of wheelchair-accessible taxis through new surcharges geared at meeting a long-delayed 50% accessibility mandate.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission’s proposed rules change would increase an existing 30-cent customer surcharge on all yellow and green taxi trips to $1 to help fund accessibility upgrades ordered nearly a decade ago as part of a landmark federal class-action lawsuit settlement. The settlement originally called for half of the then-13,237 medallion cabs to be accessible by 2020. There are now 13,587 medallion taxis.
An analysis by THE CITY of TLC data shows that only 2,886 of the 7,337 yellow taxicabs that were in service as of this week, or 39%, were wheelchair accessible. Among the 1,193 green taxis active this week, fewer than 5% were accessible. Lower use of taxis in recent years has led to medallion owners putting fewer cars on the streets.
“There are thousands of accessible yellow taxi medallions that are not on the road right now,” Joseph Rappaport, executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, told THE CITY. “If this will get more on the road, we’re for it.”
There is no 50% accessibility requirement for app-based services such as Uber and Lyft, though all TLC-licensed bases must provide access to wheelchair-accessible service and pay drivers of those vehicles higher rates. As of this week, TLC data shows that only 2,903 of the nearly 72,000 app-based for-hire vehicles in the city — or 4% — are wheelchair accessible.
But with the blown 2020 deadline now pushed back to June 30, 2023, the TLC is revising the dual taxi improvement funds — one yellow, one green — that since 2015, have collected nearly $200 million to help garages, medallion owners and cabbies offset the added costs that come with buying and operating wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
“The TLC has found a reasonable way to help defray the rising costs of vehicles and parts and to help the city honor this important commitment to wheelchair accessibility in the yellow taxi fleet,” Ron Sherman, president of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, told THE CITY.
Drivers and owners of accessible vehicles can receive grant money from the two funds to reduce the costs they pay for vehicle conversions, gas and maintenance, as these vehicles are more expensive to buy, maintain and fuel.
TLC records show the taxi improvement funds last year directed $11.6 million to nearly 2,200 owners of wheelchair-accessible vehicles and $6.3 million to more than 3,000 drivers of yellow or green taxis that are equipped for wheelchair and scooter users. Under a separate plan, 20% of green taxis must be accessible.
“As TLC has already increased the benefits received by drivers and owners of wheelchair accessible vehicles, increasing the surcharge will help finance those disbursements and keep the fund sustainable,” TLC Commissioner David Do said in a statement to THE CITY.
Opposing Other Surcharges
The proposal comes as taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers have rallied for exemptions from potential congestion pricing surcharges south of 60th Street in Manhattan that are designed to raise money for mass-transit capital upgrades, saying they have already generated close to $2 billion in other transit-related surcharges.
“The more you charge, the less fares you’re going to get,” said Nino Hervias, who has driven a taxi in the city for 37 years. “It’s got consequences — if a passenger sees all those surcharges, you’re going to be discouraged from taking a taxi again.”
Hervias, a former medallion owner, said the taxi industry is hampered by the high cost of accessibility requirements that do not apply to for-hire services such as Uber and Lyft.
“When is the city going to level the playing field?” said Hervias, the president of Yellow Taxi United, a driver’s group. “That’s all we want.”
Bhairavi Desai, the head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, representing more than 20,000 drivers, said the taxi improvement funds are “grossly underfunded” and pointed out that the benefits from the surcharge would be earmarked for the long-struggling taxi industry and not the mass transit system.
“It generates revenue that gets redistributed to the taxis,” Bhairavai Desai, the group’s executive director, told THE CITY. “It doesn’t go back to the MTA, it doesn’t go to TLC and that’s the difference.”
The proposed surcharges are part of a series of other planned rules changes that would include the first fare increase for drivers in a decade, bumping the pick-up rate from $2.50 to $3 and raising the JFK Airport flat fare from $52 to $65.
The extra money, according to the TLC, will go directly to drivers.
“We forced the city to enact a raise for all drivers,” Desai said. “For us, this is a victory in the making.”
The TLC will take public comments on the proposals at a hearing on Oct. 6 at 10 a.m. To take part, email the TLC at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (212) 676-1135 by Oct. 5.