For disabled riders, new taxi law could provide much-needed improvements

Nathaniel Herz
Bob Hallinen

For Blaine Miller, flying out of Ted Stevens International Airport is more complicated, and expensive, than for most people.

The day before his flight, he has to remember to pick up the phone and dial one of the two Anchorage companies that dispatch taxis. He tells the dispatcher that he'll pay the normal fare to the airport -- and then he promises to toss in another $100 if the cab picks him up on time.

Miller, 47, uses an electric wheelchair. He says that offering the extra cash is the only way to guarantee one of Anchorage's few handicapped-accessible taxis will show up.

"If I don't, I've waited two hours," he said in an interview. "I know better than to wait for them."

Miller is one of several disabled Anchorage residents clamoring for the city to fix what they say is a taxi system that doesn't serve some of the people that need them most.

Those who do ride cabs say that they often end up waiting for hours, ignored by unscrupulous drivers who rarely if ever face discipline for flouting the city's taxi rules. Others have given up on the system, like Ric Nelson, a 30-year-old graduate student who uses an electric wheelchair, and says he's afraid to go out to bars with his friends because he fears getting stranded.

Anchorage regulators and Assembly members acknowledge the problems, but they say they're working to fix them. In late August, the city sold five new permits for wheelchair-accessible cabs, doubling the number in service. And a long-awaited ordinance unveiled by the Assembly last week should toughen the city's taxi rules, said sponsor Dick Traini.

"There was no teeth in it before -- there will be this time," Traini said. "We want to make sure that when people call a taxi cab service, it shows up."

Anchorage currently has 188 taxi permits, and owning one is the only legal way to operate a cab.

For the past decade, just five of those permits were specially designated for taxis equipped to serve citizens with disabilities. The permits, which were first sold in 2001, require drivers to prioritize calls from disabled passengers, and their vehicles must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, with equipment like lifts or ramps to make them accessible.

While taxi permit owners have to pay to install the equipment, they can get the special permits at a discount: At an auction at City Hall last month, a batch of them sold for between $41,200 and $45,500. That was far below the prices paid for general medallions, many of which sold for more than $80,000.

The city sold five of the special permits at the auction, doubling the number in service. Up until then, disabled passengers had faced frequent delays.

"It's basically a joke," said Rhonda Moore, 65, who said she needs a "heavy-duty walker" to get around. "I tried to use one coming from dialysis to a doctor's appointment -- I waited at dialysis for over an hour, and they still couldn't tell me when they could get me an accessible vehicle. I finally had to have a friend come and get me."

Moore said she'd also had her calls for service flatly turned down, and another time she said she talked to a dispatcher who didn't know what a wheelchair-accessible taxi was. Once, she said, she spent two days trying to arrange a taxi ride to the grocery store before giving up.

Debbie Ossiander, a former Anchorage assemblywoman who tried to pass reforms to the city's taxi laws earlier this year, said she'd heard accounts of defective equipment, and of "rudeness," "ignorance," and "disrespect."

"I heard just incredible horror stories about lack of service for folks who have any kind of disability," Ossiander said in an interview.

It's clear that the system has some shortcomings, said Eric Musser, Anchorage's transportation inspector. But he said that the five new permits the city just sold should help, and that officials will watch closely to see if the delays persist.

"We feel once they're on the road, the service levels to the community will markedly increase," he said in an interview.

Disabled riders and advocates, however, said that lax enforcement was just as much of a problem as the small number of permits. Drivers often ignore requests for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and go unpunished, charged Miller, the disabled veteran.

Musser acknowledged that in his year-and-a-half as transportation inspector, he hadn't penalized a single driver for failing to pick up a disabled passenger. But that wasn't for lack of trying, he said, noting that his department averages just one complaint a month.

In his office off Elmore Road, Musser showed a reporter detailed records he'd gathered in an attempt to corroborate a recent complaint. What they demonstrated, he said, was not that drivers had been ignoring the call; instead, all the wheelchair-accessible cabs at the time were in use.

The new taxi ordinance introduced by Traini should help fix the problems: It boosts the number of code enforcement officers from one working half-time to two working full-time.

It also requires dispatch companies to keep detailed records of requests by disabled passengers, and responses to them -- and to follow up with phone calls every 10 minutes if taxis fail to arrive.

The law doesn't, however, do much to fix another area that riders say is deficient -- the equipment used by the wheelchair-accessible cabs. While Musser stressed that the vehicles are all compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, advocates say that they're often inaccessible, with steep ramps or inadequate tie-downs.

"They're in ridiculous shape," Miller said. "Half of them don't even offer to strap you in, so you're stuck rolling around in the back."

In an interview before releasing his update, Traini said that he was committed to modifying it to reflect concerns raised by disabled Anchorage residents at public hearings on the law.

"Nothing is wholly writ, and nobody assumes you're going to be perfect in a working draft," he said. "We're going to make sure their voices are heard."

But Nelson, the graduate student, said he was worried those voices would get drowned out by city's permit owners, which he characterized as a powerful interest group. The permit owners' lobbyist is Dan Coffey, an attorney and former assemblyman, while Nelson said that his own call to Traini went unreturned. (Traini said he never got the phone call.)

In an interview, Coffey said he was open to many of the changes proposed for the wheelchair-accessible cabs. But he said that advocates for the city's disability community needed to be more active in shaping the law.

"You've got to really, really be engaged," Coffey said. "You've got to write some language. It doesn't have to be legalese, necessarily -- it's got to be pretty clear, and concise."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.