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Auction Expands Cab Fleet for Disabled From 3 to 30
By Elaine Aradillas
Published: October 16, 2004

After two subway train rides and a half-mile trek along the city's sidewalks, Edith Prentiss arrived downtown in her motorized wheelchair yesterday to watch as 27 medallions earmarked for wheelchair-accessible cabs were auctioned.

The city's Taxi and Limousine Commission announced the winning bids in front of about a dozen taxi brokers and a handful of advocates for the disabled inside the agency's offices near Battery Park.

The new medallions will bring the total number of accessible cabs to 30 out of the 12,487 taxis on the streets. There are now only three cabs, all minivans with wheelchair ramps, and people like Ms. Prentiss have one chance in 4,162 of hailing a cab able to accommodate them.

Ms. Prentiss, who lives in Washington Heights, said that the auction improved the outlook for disabled New Yorkers, but that there would still be too few accessible cabs. “They're like unicorns,” she said. “You have to be pure to catch one.”

Advocates for those with disabilities have criticized the lack of accessible taxis for years. Four years ago, the taxi commission endorsed the idea of specially equipped cabs, but it never went anywhere. This year, the commission voted to modify its rules to encourage the purchase of taxi medallions designated for wheelchair-accessible cabs, and allocated 27 for auction.

The medallions auctioned yesterday were originally up for bid in April, but none were sold then, the city said, because the bids were all too low.

This time, Matthew W. Daus, the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, auctioned off the wheelchair-accessible taxi medallions separately from the regular medallions, with a minimum bid of $219,000, nearly $50,000 less than the minimum bid for a regular medallion.

After the 89 bids were opened, the average price of a winning bid for a wheelchair-accessible-taxi medallion was $275,262. The highest bid came in at $347,000.

Some bidders for specialized medallions said they were motivated by a sense of duty. Andrew Murstein, president of Medallion Financial, which finances medallion mortgages and owns nearly 300 medallions, said his company bid for all 27 medallions, but came in at No. 28 and 29 - not high enough to claim any.

“We really thought we were doing a socially responsible investment,” he said.

Ten of the medallions were awarded to Guy Roberts, a client of Jeanne Kohler, a broker at Chelsea Taxi Brokers. Ms. Kohler said she was not sure how her client's business would be affected by accommodating disabled riders, other than being able to assist more people traveling by cab.

“It's a good opportunity for fleets, and we need to be accessible to all people,” she said.

Some people within the taxi industry question the idea of converting the entire fleet, as some are proposing. David Pollack, executive director for the Committee for Taxi Safety, said there were many logistical questions, including the durability of the cabs and where to park and pick up passengers.

“You cannot buy a wheelchair-accessible Crown Victoria,” he said, referring to the standard yellow cabs made by Ford. As a result, the new cabs will most likely be minivans equipped with ramps, which will be uncomfortable for people who do not use wheelchairs, Mr. Pollack said.

“There's less room for the 99.9 percent of the riding public,” he said.

Both sides will monitor the effectiveness of the specialized fleet. Terence Moakley, associate executive director of the United Spinal Association, which assists paralyzed people, compared the process to the fight to make city buses accessible. It was slow, he said, but eventually every bus was outfitted with lifts.

“No one in our community thought this was going to be easy,” he said, “but it's a start.”

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