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City Starts Pilot Taxi Program for the Disabled in Astoria and Canarsie

ASTORIA — The city has begun testing a new pilot program to help disabled residents pay for taxi and livery cabs in lieu of Access-A-Ride or public transportation.

The Taxi Smart Card program was launched in Astoria, Queens and Canarsie, Brooklyn, and provides eligible disabled residents with a pre-loaded card that can be used to pay taxi and livery car fares. Participants pay $12.50 for the card, and the program contributes an additional $87.50.

Caryn Resnick, deputy commissioner for Department for the Aging — which is offering the program alongside the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities — said the neighborhoods were chosen because they're difficult to reach by public transportation and aren't serviced by many yellow taxis.

"Most individuals in these areas would use a car service," Resnick said in an e-mail. Disabled residents who live within in Queens Community Board 1 and Brooklyn Community Board 18 can apply.

Funding for the pilot program is secured through March of 2014, and if it's successful, Resnick said the city would seek additional funds to expand it into a citywide initiative.

Patricia Enriquez, director at New York City Expert Disability Associates, said the Smart Card could be helpful as a back-up to Access-a-Ride, which can sometimes have hour-long wait times and other challenges.

"Access-A-Ride can be a bit stressful for some members. If they're not at the curb when the cab or van arrives, the cab or van is instructed to wait five minutes, then leave," Enriquez said, adding that many use Access-A-Ride to get to important and hard-to-schedule doctor's appointments.

"The system doesn’t always work perfectly — if you miss a ride then you're out of luck," she said.

But Edith Prentiss of the advocacy group Disabled in Action said the program still fails to address the city's shortage of handicap-accessible taxis and livery cabs.

She said figures from the Taxi and Limousine Commission in 2011 reported only 23 accessible liveries out of approximately 40,000, and only 233 accessible yellow taxis out of more than 13,000.

"The problem is that until we have a critical mass of accessible taxis and liveries, this program will never work," she said.

Disability rights activists have been fighting to get the city to convert its fleet of taxis and livery cars to wheelchair accessible vehicles. Last year, a federal appeals court overturned a ruling that would have forced a substantial number of the city's taxis to become wheelchair accessible.

Resnick said a majority of Access-A-Ride users are not wheelchair bound, and that allowing them another travel option would free up the vehicles for those who are.

"By piloting an alternative voucher program for people with disabilities who are non-wheel chair users,  it may free up seating for wheelchairs on Access-a-ride vehicles," Resnick said, adding also that "some of the livery and taxis in the pilot are wheelchair accessible."