Eloise Jones takes a taxi three times a week to and from kidney dialysis treatments. Her transportation is paid for by Medicaid.
The possibility of a taxicab fare increase in Niagara Falls, proposed at a recent City Council meeting, has her worried. There is talk that Medicaid won't cover higher rates.
Jones is not alone. A good percentage of the elderly population in Niagara Falls uses taxis, and much of the population in Niagara Falls is elderly. A fare hike is a hot issue among residents -- whether covered by Medicaid or not -- as well as taxi drivers, which is one reason there hasn't been one in six years.
But the taxicab operators have been petitioning the City Council for the rate increase for more than a year. The Council, which must approve the rates, has so far refused.
The proposed increase would raise fares 30 cents for the first one-sixth of a mile and five cents for each additional sixth. The increase would raise the rate for the first sixth of a mile from $1.50 to $1.80 and the rate for each subsequent sixth mile from 25 cents to 30 cents. It would raise the cost of a one-mile ride from $2.75 to $3.25.
Philip Considine, owner of Falls Taxi, told the Council two weeks ago that without a raise, many of the operators would be out of business by the end of winter. He said for most riders, his proposal would be an extra 50 cents to $1 per trip.
City Councilman John G. Accardo said he discovered that Medicaid would pay more if the cab operators would set uniform fares.
"If they would charge a set fee, Medicaid would pay it," Accardo said. "That would at least solve some of the problem."
He has set a meeting with the owners of taxi companies for 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. Accardo hopes to have a Medicaid representative attend.
Accardo said he also asked a representative of the Police Department, which regulates taxicabs, to attend to address concerns about the appearance of cabs and drivers.
Terry Litten, a taxi owner-operator who drives for LaSalle Cab Dispatch Service, said if the taxi companies would agree to a uniform rate for corporate accounts like Medicaid, they could "leave the people alone."
He said a trip to Buffalo General Hospital costs $36 for a passenger paying out of his own pocket. But because of the underbidding, a Medicaid-subsidized trip costs $23. Medicaid takes bids from the three major companies and accepts the lowest bid, he said. If the companies uniformly set the rate at $36, Medicaid would pay, he said.
"What else can happen? As a Niagara Falls resident for 50 years I understand that if you're on welfare, a fixed income, Social Security or work a minimum wage job, you can't afford any more," Litten said.
The industry employs 250 people here, Considine said.
Litten said part of the problem is that the city still has as many taxi medallions -- about 85 -- as it had 15 years ago, when the population was larger. So the industry has gotten more competitive.
Not all drivers agree with the proposed increase.
A rate hike would force taxicab users to take buses, which would just hurt the cabs more, Litten said.
Richard D. Long, an independent driver with Rainbow Dispatch Taxi Service, said the hike would be too much, given the economic situation of most taxi users.
"Being a welfare city and a city of the elderly, that's probably 90 percent of my business Everybody is struggling here," said Long.
While some taxi riders surveyed were upset about the prospect of higher fares, others said they were more worried about the possibility of losing service.
Most of the dozen cab riders interviewed said they hadn't heard anyone talking about the increase around the senior citizen residential towers. Several said the cabs and drivers could be cleaner and complained about long waits or cabs not showing up at all.
Mary Heilbrun, a resident of Niagara Tower, said higher fares would be a hardship for her, especially in the winter. She and several other residents said they take cabs more in bad weather and walk when the weather is good. Heilbrun and others said they understand the cab operators' costs have gone up.
"They have families to feed, too," said Beatrice Greene, also of Niagara Towers.