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HandyDart reform chops taxi subsidy coupons

TransLink to reinvest savings to provide more rides
A passenger and scooter gets a lift into a HandyDart minibus.

TransLink has riled frail seniors and the disabled by chopping a program that gives  them up to $50 a month in taxi subsidies in order to save $1.1 million a year.

TransLink says it will plow the money saved back into its HandyDart program and offer more custom transit rides that way, as well as with taxis sent by HandyDart dispatchers.

But users of the TaxiSaver program, which offered $100 per month in taxi coupons at a 50 per cent discount, are furious.

"The taxi is a lifeline for me," said Lilo Ljubisic, a blind Burnaby resident and five-time Paralympian in shot put and discus.

"The peanuts they're talking about saving on the backs of people who are marginalized and disadvantaged in society is appalling."

Ljubisic used the taxi coupons in combination with regular transit and HandyDart to get around, in part because HandyDart requests get denied up to half the time unless they're booked far in advance.

"We're not talking about limousining ourselves in taxis all over town," she said. "We're limited to $100 per month in a cab."

TransLink spokesman Drew Snider said TaxiSavers had become an uncontrolled cost with 85 per cent of users not actually using HandyDart.

Many of them were stockpiling the taxi coupons, resulting in a growing liability for TransLink, with nothing to prevent holders from giving or reselling them to unauthorized users.

Snider said the taxi subsidy was originally launched in 1990 to fill in a service gap at a time when the bus fleet wasn't accessible.

All buses now have low floors or lifts, he said, and HandyDart has expanded greatly, with its vehicles running until midnight.

Meanwhile, he said, the pressure to keep up with rising HandyDart demand has been intense.

More than 18,000 trip requests were denied last year because the service was oversubscribed and that problem has worsened this year.

TransLink will cover nearly 20,000 extra HandyDart requests in the first year by putting $200,000 worth of the savings into supplemental taxi trips, Snider said.

But that won't come close to replacing the rides taken under taxi subsidies – a total of 175,000 trips were taken last year by 30,000 approved TaxiSaver users.

Snider said it's expected a significant number will be able to take conventional transit instead.

With supplemental taxi service, which is dispatched by HandyDart when its vehicles aren't available to make a run, users pay only their regular fare and TransLink covers the difference to send them by cab.

Jane Dyson, executive director of the B.C. Coalition for People with Disabilities, predicts that system may prove more expensive for TransLink than the subsidy coupons, where users pay half the cost.

Not as many people will be able to use regular transit as TransLink hopes, she said, resulting in much heavier demand for the already overwhelmed HandyDart system.

"A lot of frail seniors and and people with disabilities will be less able to take spontaneous trips into the community," Dyson said. "From a dignity standpoint, you're taking away people's independence."

TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly had recommended more use of dispatched taxis, since the public subsidy for HandyDart exceeds $30 per trip.

But Snider said the money is not being removed from the HandyDart budget to satisfy pressure from Crilly to find savings to offset a fare hike denial.

“We realize this will come as a shock to people who have been using TaxiSaver," said Heather McCain, chair of the Access Transit Users’ Advisory Committee.

"But by reinvesting that money in HandyDart, this will be a great help to those who rely on the service.”

Photo above: Lilo Ljubisic, a blind Burnaby resident and Paralympian.