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Seniors, disabled hail new taxi program

John Geluardi
Friday May 25, 2001

To the applause of a contingent of seniors, the City Council adopted a new and improved taxi subsidy program Tuesday that guarantees cab drivers full and timely payment for transporting seniors and the disabled. 

The council approved the modified service, called the Paratransit Taxiscrip Program, unanimously. The new program raises the fare value of the scrip coupons, increases the frequency of coupon redemption for cash and sets a minimum fare of $5 for drivers who pick up scrip riders. 

The program subsidizes taxi transportation for Berkeley  

residents who are disabled or residents who are disabled or over 70 years old.  

The city provides scrip riders with a certain amount of free coupons each quarter, after which they pay 25 to 45 percent of the face value of the coupon, depending on their economic status. Currently the program serves about 700 Berkeley residents. 

The new plan, which begins July 2, will be expanded to include all cab companies that operate in Berkeley instead of the previous practice of contracting scrip service from just three or four companies. 

“I think the city manager and the City Council did a good job in putting together this new program,” said Margot Smith a co-convener of the Berkeley Gray Panthers.  

“Hopefully, with better and more frequent pay, the service will be better also.” 

The Housing Department, which manages the program, made the modifications in response to reports from the Commission on Aging and the Commission on Disability that claimed cab drivers were increasingly refusing to pick up senior and disabled scrip fares.  

The reports claimed drivers were disgruntled with the program because they could only redeem coupons for 90 cents on the dollar and there were often delays in receiving payment, because the city was accepting the coupons only once a month. 

In addition cab company owners were displeased because they were required by the city to carry broader insurance coverage and therefore pay higher premiums to participate in the program. 

Drivers also complained that seniors and disabled fares often traveled only short distances and that they required extra service such as carrying shopping bags and loading and unloading wheel chairs and walkers. 

The result was that drivers were showing up late or not at all for scrip riders.  

In April the council heard from several seniors who told horror stories about being stranded for hours at supermarkets and missing long-awaited doctors’ appointments because of the bad service.  

Under the new plan all drivers and owners will be able to go to the city’s Finance Service Center at 2020 Center St. and turn in their scrip coupons for full value of the fare.  

“Starting July 2, we’re going to start redeeming the coupons two days a week, and work toward five days a week,” said Interim Housing Director Stephen Barton. “We’re starting slowly, one step at a time.” 

The new program also sets the minimum scrip fare at $5. Barton said the city will pay the difference for fares less than that amount.  

He estimated that the guaranteed minimum will cost the city about $1,000 a year. 

According to a Housing Department staff report, the cost of the modifications will add approximately $20,000 to the program’s budget, which was $175,000 for this fiscal year. The report says there may be additional charges for administration of the redemption program. 

According to Roy Phelps, senior field representative for the Finance Department, the initial response from cab companies has been positive.  

“It remains to be seen how the new program will work because we haven’t implemented anything yet,” he said. “But I expect service will get better.” 

Many seniors were distressed in November when Bay Area Luxor Cab Company wanted to pull out of the program because it was losing money.  

The small six-cab company run by Nemat Modarresi and his wife Mahin Rajabi was considered by many to offer the best service.  

“They are the best company in Berkeley,” said COD Commissioner Karen Rose. 

“They show up when they say they will and they screen their drivers so they’re always friendly.” 

Rajabi said the modified scrip program sounds good, but said she is waiting for her husband to return from a trip out of the country before deciding to participate again. 

COD Commissioner Karen Craig said she was glad to hear about the changes in the program, but has concerns. She said the redemption system has to be run efficiently, otherwise drivers will waste too much time standing in line at the Finance Department, which will be discouraging. 

She also said she would like to see mandatory sensitivity training for cab drivers “because they can often be inconsiderate and rude to scrip riders, who have few defenses.” 

A Berkeley cab driver, who asked not to be identified, said he agreed with the idea of training. “There should be training for cab drivers,” he said. “The elderly and the disabled can be very aggressive and unpleasant and training would help us with dealing with them.”