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Evanston’s Human Services Committee members received a report detailing proposed changes to the Subsidized Taxicab program at their Dec. 4 meeting. The current program provides up to 10 coupons a week good for $4 taxicab rides within Evanston, Skokie, Wilmette, and Lincolnwood – provided the ride originates or ends in Evanston. Coupons are available to residents over 65 or in need of transit assistance.

Under the proposed new program, “T4E” or Trans-Assist4Evanston, eligible riders would be provided with a preloaded debit card. Program users would be able to load up to $75 per month onto the card, and the City of Evanston would match that amount. Taxis would continue to accept the cards, but transportation networks would be expanded to include rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, public transit via the CTA, CJE Senior Life vans, train travel on Amtrak and Metra, and other transportation options.

Gone would be the geographic limitation necessitated by the low cost of the subsidized taxicab coupon – $4 ($8 when the subsidy is factored in) only gets a rider so far, after all.

Audrey Thompson, the City’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, said the goal of the revised program is to reach more residents and expand transportation options. The current coupon program has about 671 users out of 3,157 Evanston benefits-card holders, she said. A closer look shows even fewer benefits than the current program.

“Thirty-nine ‘super-users’ account for 45% of the total coupons purchased,” Ms. Thompson told the Committee. “Six percent of people are using 45% of the budget.” The City spends about $233,000 a year on taxi coupon subsidies, and the 39 superusers account for almost $104,000.

“We’ve got to make some changes,” said Ms. Thompson. The new T4E, if approved, will go live March 1, 2018. Eligible riders would be able to pick up and load their transit debit cards at the Levy Center and add value each month. Debit cards would be limited to transportation uses only – “You can’t use it for groceries,” said Ms. Thompson.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said her concern was seniors would run out of debit card funding before a month ended. “Is there a way we can help them?” she asked, seeking education on budgeting.

Ms. Thompson said the City would work to educate program participants. “Other modes of transportation are less expensive” than taxis, she said. Taxi drivers expect a tip, whereas Uber and Lyft drivers do not, she added.

“I love this. I like the idea of expanding options,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. He said his only concern was that under the current taxicab subsidy program, the City could oversee cab drivers and prevent or respond to abuse or rude behavior toward senior riders. Reports of disgruntled, rude, and abusive drivers upset by the low fare and lack of tips from subsidized rides have reached the City, he said, referencing an earlier comment from Ms. Thompson.

“With Uber, when you have an issue, you can’t just pick up the phone and call a dispatcher,” said Ald. Braithwaite. He suggested the City contact taxi companies to prepare them for the transition, referring the matter to the Administration and Public Works Committee.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, urged the City to include the Over the Rainbow community in outreach efforts.

With little opposition at the committee, it appears likely the program will obtain Council approval and launch as planned in early March. The days of the $4 Evanston taxi coupons are numbered.