The state’s first use of the money raised from fees on Uber and Lyft rides will be spent on public transit services . . . and, ultimately, back to Uber and Lyft.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on Monday announced a new program to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles that ride-hail companies have for passengers with disabilities who are eligible for the T’s door-to-door service, the Ride.
Uber and Lyft began working with the T in 2016 to serve Ride passengers, and the service has grown popular because riders can book at short notice rather than the traditional system where they have to schedule a pickup in advance. They are also less expensive on a per-ride basis for the MBTA.
But one issue has been a shortage of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
“People have tasted this, and they want more of it,” said Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living. “But there are real challenges around wheelchair accessibility and having drivers who know how to work with people.”
However, trips on these vans come at a higher cost for Uber and Lyft, who have contracts with transportation providers but have been criticized for not deploying enough of the vehicles.
The state’s new plan is to pay Uber and Lyft $24 for each hour a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is in service. The goal is to quadruple the amount of vehicles available to passengers in wheelchairs, at a cost to the T of about $2.4 million a year.
The money would come from a so-far untouched pot of $3.2 million state transportation officials have collected as a share of the 20-cents-a-ride fee on each ride-hail trip in Massachusetts.
That means Uber and Lyft will be paid by the state to improve their wheelchair services, through the fees those same companies pay to operate in the state. And the move comes as transit activists, some state lawmakers, and the Massachusetts Port Authority are pushing for higher fees on ride-hail trips to help fund public transit.
James Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who has called for a fee increase, said the new wheelchair program will improve the transit system for riders with disabilities. He likened the use of the ride-hail fees as an incentive for Uber and Lyft to a tax break.
“It’s like, ‘You give us this money for a fee. We’ll give that back to you, but you must use it this way,’ ” he said. “It’s another way of encouraging the private sector to do what it won’t do on its own.”