WA Government announce funding boost to increase wheelchair accessible taxis

Busselton Taxis' Milton Parry and Jeff Devenny. Photo from 2015.
Busselton Taxis' Milton Parry and Jeff Devenny. Photo from 2015.

There has been a mixed response from the state government's announcement to expand its wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) taxi service grant scheme.

In a pre-budget announcement, transport minister Rita Saffioti said the government would be adding $1.5 million over four years for wheelchair accessible vehicle taxi services.

Ms Saffioti said the scheme would provide financial support to encourage establishment of WAV taxi services in regional towns.

The funding would also include annual allocation of $115,000 through the scheme to increase the existing WAV Modification Grants from $15,000 to $20,000 to support the costs of installing wheelchair hoists and associated modifications.

The Regional WAV Taxi Service Grant Scheme is a new initiative offering two tiers of financial support from an annual funding pool of $260,000.

Grants of $65,000 from the pool will support the establishment of new WAV taxi services in towns where none exist.

Grants of $45,000 will support existing WAV taxi service providers to replace an ageing WAV taxi or buy an additional WAV taxi to meet demand.

Margaret River resident Stephen Bebbington had put off starting a business that offered one or two wheelchair accessible taxis due to COVID-19, worker shortage and housing shortage.

He told the Mail that the new scheme from the state government would allow him to buy two vehicles.

"It is abundantly clear that there is a large demand for this service in the Margaret River/Augusta area," he said.

"This includes a wide array of individuals with disabilities and the elderly who are currently unable to attend appointments, visit friends or attend social functions, leaving them isolated, sometimes lonely, and always dependent upon others.

"A grant of $65,000 would enable us to buy two vans fully equipped to transport up to two wheelchairs and eight additional passengers."

Further information on the Regional WAV Taxi Service Grant Scheme, including key dates and eligibility criteria, is expected to be available from July 1 on the Department of Transport website.

If all goes well, Mr Bebbington said he could have the service operating next summer.

However, the announcement did not get the same reaction in Busselton or Mandurah where operators are feeling the pinch of a lack of drivers, legacy debt and affordability to upgrade.

Busselton and Vasse Taxis stopped its service on Sundays, including wheelchair vehicles, earlier this year because it had become unviable.

Owner Janet Devenny said they had three wheelchair accessible vehicles however did not have the staff to drive them.

"The problem is attaining drivers to do this work, they do not get paid enough. No holiday pay, no superannuation," she said.

"We have had one small rate rise in eight years, and with fuel and other rising costs there is just no money in it.

"The taxi industry has been left behind by the state government."

Mandurah Taxis business manager and WA Country Taxi Operators Association secretary Julie Murray said the announcement felt like it was "too little too late".

Mandurah Taxis business manager and WA Country Taxi Operators Association secretary Julie Murray.

Mandurah Taxis business manager and WA Country Taxi Operators Association secretary Julie Murray.

"Another kick in the guts for hardworking regional operators who worked all through the introduction to Uber and then COVID for their communities," she said.

"Unfortunately, many very experienced existing wheelchair taxi operators and drivers have left or are just hanging on as they have been left with existing legacy debts from the taxi plates they did not get any buyback for."

Ms Murray said since the 1990s, Mandurah Taxis had been providing a 24/7 service with 11 wheelchair accessible vehicles.

With the temporary removal of lift fees in 2019, Mandurah Taxis saw six full-time wheelchair vehicles resign.

Ms Murray said the decision was made specifically in relation to Mandurah Taxis and resulted in a 50 percent income cut.

"Now we operate four buses and independents under Black and White have three buses on road day times," she said.

"That's longer wait times for local disabled residents and at times there are no accessible vehicles available."