For years, customers who complained about the MBTA’s van service for passengers with disabilities were told that The Ride is not their personal taxi service.
But in a move that is already earning praise from customers, MBTA officials are now taking advantage of taxis to improve The Ride — and ride-hailing companies such as Uber could soon join them.
Users of The Ride typically have to schedule trips 24 hours in advance and share rides with other customers in vehicles specifically for The Ride. But for the next six months, 124 participants in a pilot program can travel in regular taxis and pay for them with a subsidized debit card from the MBTA.
Rick Morin, treasurer of the Bay State Council for the Blind, praised the program after using it for the first time this week. On Monday, he took a taxi from his home in Waltham to an MBTA bus stop, and then took a bus to the Harvard station to take the Red Line. Even with all the transfers, the new program worked better than taking The Ride, he said.
“It’s like night and day,” said Morin. “It’s not a shared ride service, and there’s flexibility with it.”
MBTA officials say they are pursuing a similar partnership with ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft. If the MBTA is able to expand the program, officials believe the agency could save up to $16 million in the 2017 fiscal year.
Uber officials, who have met with the MBTA four or five times, appear eager to strike a deal with the agency. A spokeswoman for Uber released a statement that said Uber “stands ready to work with the MBTA and the RIDE to help increase mobility options across the Commonwealth.”
About 96,000 people are eligible for The Ride, which cost about $97 million and provided about 2.1 million trips during the 2015 fiscal year.
With the new taxi program, users eligible for The Ride are sent a subsidized Bank of America debit card in the mail. For every $2 the customer pays, the MBTA will pitch in an extra $13 on the debit card.
Instead of calling The Ride’s dispatch center for a ride 24 hours in advance, customers in the pilot program will now be able to call a number of participating taxi companies to be picked up on the same day. Customers can use the debit card, which can be used only with select taxi companies, to pay for the trip. For every taxi ride that costs more than $15, the customer has to pay additional cash.
Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said the agency will follow up with participants in the pilot program by random calls and a survey to see how well the program works.
The taxi program is part of a larger plan to drive down costs for the expensive service. Michael Lambert, deputy administrator of transit for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, told the fiscal control board during its weekly meeting Monday that the MBTA provides above and beyond what is required by federal law. Without any changes, Lambert said, the MBTA would need to spend about $108 million next year on the service.
Officials on Monday said they could save $47 million during the next fiscal year if they expand the taxi pilot and include ride-hailing vehicles; charge more for the service; train more customers to encourage them to use The Ride; and reduce The Ride’s service area.
Officials believe that the taxi program, which will cost $672,662, could save the agency a substantial amount per trip. Currently, the MBTA spends about $46.88 on average to subsidize every one-way trip on The Ride, a service that has seen complaints double from 2010 to 2014.
At Monday’s meeting, leaders from two ride-hailing services — Tyler George, the general manager of Lyft in Boston, and Matthew George, the chief executive officer of the Bridj bus service — told the fiscal control board that they want to provide service that would make The Ride operate more efficiently.
Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft, said one to two dozen transit agencies across the country have approached the company for help with systems like The Ride.
“Many large cities are grappling with this issue, and they’re eager to find solutions to save money and improve the quality of service,” she said.
Officials and users of The Ride say they know private taxis can’t totally replace the on-call vans. For example, customers who use wheelchairs cannot access many taxis and ride-hailing vehicles.
But Morin said he knows many in his position — those who want to use the bus or subway system once they can get to the stops or stations — will take full advantage of the program.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “But for the people who will be able to use this option, I think it’s great.”Nicole Dungca can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.