They're Putting the Brakes on Rising Transportation Costs

by Sharon Lovering (Reprinted with permission from Sharon Lovering, Editor of ACB Braille Forum)

Whether we're buying a new car or paying for a cab ride to the store, all of us are affected by high transportation costs that can deal a low blow to any budget. A new program designed to take some of the sting out of the cost of transportation is about to enter the test phase in Omaha, Neb., and the group that has been working toward its implementation is excited about it.Called Share A Fare, the program is intended to provide a partnership of sorts whereby the blind or visually impaired taxi rider would pay part of the fare and the program would pay the rest. Jan Anderson, former chairperson of the Share A Fare group, and several others in the Omaha area have been trying to get the program off the ground for five years. ”The goal of Share A Fare is to help visually handicapped people be more independent,” she stated. The group put ”people first, causes second,” and came up with the Share A Fare idea, patterned after the Give a Lift program in Lincoln. ”It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up,” she said.

Give A Lift began in 1987, and is only applicable to cabs. It began ”because there was a need for transportation,” Mary Susan Orester, a member of the Lincoln chapter, said. Usually there aren’t any buses running after 6:10 p.m. weekdays, or any on Sundays. Give A Lift was born ”so that people could use the cabs when the buses weren’t running.”Originally, blind people could ride the Handi-Van, the van ride system for disabled people. But when the HandiVan program eliminated blind people, stating that blindness was not a qualifier for the program, then State Sen. Carl T. Curtiss helped them raise seed money, a few thousand dollars, to buy coupon books, said Bill Orester, president of ACB of Nebraska. Other funds have come from contributions and a grant from the Abbott Charitable Foundation.  Visually impaired people are eligible for the program; they pay $5 for a $10 book of coupons. Give A Lift covers the remaining $5. Omaha’s books of 20 coupons will sell for $10, and blind and visually impaired people can use them to pay up to half a cab fare.

There is a limit of two books per usage period. The fee will make people feel as if they’re contributing something to the program, and not overtax already strained wallets. ”If you pay for something, it has more value,” Anderson said. She and her group set a goal of raising $ 10,000, and while they have not yet reached it, they feel confident in running the test phase. They’re so confident, in fact, that they’ve already selected 31 people to participate in the program. They have sent out several contribution letters, held dances (with her husband’s bands donating time and energy), held raffles and sought grants and money from trust funds.

Omaha’s Channel 6 news aired an interview with Anderson to inform the public about the program, and the group received about $100 in donations. The printing and coupons were donated by a local chapter of Telephone Pioneers of America, she added. Boston’s taxi discount program began in the early 1970s, according to Joe McLean of the Mayor’s Commission on Elderly Affairs. The taxi industry wanted to raise rates. The mayor, the elderly office and the taxi industry cooperated; putting together a program that would enable senior citizens those ages 65 and over-and disabled people to afford the taxis. Books of coupons sell for $6, and there is a limit of three a month. The program goes through 25,000 books of coupons a year. The coupons are only applicable to Boston-licensed taxis, he noted. ”It’s probably one of the more popular programs we have,” McLean added.

”It’s something the seniors like... [They] can see a return on their money.” And, McLean said, word about the coupons is spreading faster in the disability community. Sometimes home health aides, home care nurses and other professionals come in to pick up the coupons, he said. The commission also does home visits once a month to make the coupon books more accessible. The program additionally offers a van ride system. Vans have portable ramps and the same meter and rates as cabs do, and people can flag the vans down on the street just like cabs. The goal of the program is that all cabs can be used by able-bodied and disabled people alike, he said, acknowledging that it would take a while and cost a lot of money before that happened.Give A Lift’s goal is ”to provide all blind and visually handicapped people with reasonably priced transportation,” Orester said. Blind people wouldn’t have to sit at home waiting for relatives to drive them to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores or other such places. He would like to see fare sharing in other communities, and would love to see a statewide program. ”Hopefully we can get a statewide program going eventually,” he said. Right now, ”we’re trying to get [Share A Fare] up and going.” He noted that the Abbott Foundation would help Share A Fare once it got up and running.In order to buy coupons in Omaha, purchasers must pay cash, check or money order; Lincoln accepts cash or check, but Boston prefers cash. Unlike Boston, however, Share A Fare has just one requirement for eligibility: the person must be legally blind. Give A Lift’s requirement is that the person be visually impaired. 

Utah’s Salt Lake Valley also has a transportation program. Pat Gann, Utah Council of the Blind’s membership chair, said the council buys coupon books for $8.50 and sells the books for $5 to help blind people afford Yellow Cab rides to shopping areas, doctor’s appointments, rides to the airport, library or hospital. ”It helps people,” Gann said. Blind people can buy six coupon books a month, and since the coupons aren’t dated, people can hold them as long as they want. It began eight years ago ”because we needed to do something” to help people get around, she said, and two programs have been added since.  The volunteer program provides access to volunteer drivers for two hours, once a week, for $2. This program, like the cab discount program, gets people out to doctor’s appointments and the like. Participants aren’t under tight time constraints as they are with other forms of transportation. The paid transit program also gives people access to drivers; the Utah Council reimburses its drivers 30 cents a mile. Ogden, some 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, has a similar program, Gann said, but those who want to buy the coupons must be Utah Council members. The transportation program in Salt Lake City doesn’t do that because it can serve more people if there are no membership requirements.  Share A Fare, like Boston’s program, will just apply to cabs. Bus transportation is spread out in Omaha, Anderson said, and getting on the MOBY paratransit van is difficult. One of the problems they’ve had in Omaha, she said, was getting the cab companies to help. One company agreed to go along with the Share A Fare program as long as the other company did. Kristal Platt, president of the Greater Omaha chapter and an ACB board member, said she thinks Share A Fare is good for people on fixed incomes, the unemployed and the underemployed. Currently any blind person can use it. She did not apply because, she said, the program was ”not geared for me.” Her view of the program’s goal is that it’s meant to give people on fixed incomes a chance to get out of the house, which may help some people find a job.  Kim Charlson, president of the Bay State Council of the Blind, said she believes the program, though limited to the Boston area, is helpful. Regina Chavez, a Bay State Council member, agreed in part. ”I feel that it is a help,” Chavez said. ”But it does not mean a heck of a lot on Social Security or whatever disability [program].”  She said she’d take public transportation, or paratransit, over the taxi coupons. 

Funding is still a problem for Utah’s program. ”Grants are being cut back,” Gann said. The Utah Council hopes to keep its current grants, but if it does not, it will have to seek other sources of funding. Give A Lift also had problems with finances in the beginning, Orester said.  Nevertheless, ”we’ve been real happy with [the Give A Lift program].” The other ”problem” he noted was ”finding all the blind people in town to use it. ”Cab drivers who refuse to take the coupons have posed problems for the Boston program, McLean said. The penalties for refusing the coupons are a fine or a revoked license. His advice: when calling the dispatcher, let him/her know that you’ll be using the coupons. 

If you wish to contribute to the Omaha Share A Fare effort, the address is Share A Fare, PO Box 4378, Omaha, NE 68104-0378.  For more information on Lincoln’s Give A Lift program, contact Bill or Mary Susan Orester at (402) 423-1435.  For more information on the Utah programs, contact Leslie Gertsh at (801)292-1156.