TransLink is injecting $1 million into the HandyDart system, but the money will go to provide more taxi rides for elderly and disable clients.
That's expected to provide an extra 30,000 rides this year and go much of the way to deal with the more than 42,000 service denials last year when would-be HandyDart riders couldn't be transported due to lack of capacity.
It's a further expansion of TransLink's strategy of shifting towards greater use of taxis after the idea was piloted last year by shifting 10,000 service hours from HandyDart mini-buses to taxis.
"Our customers have been asking for more taxis," said Doug Kelsey, TransLink's chief operating officer. "In North America taxis are used extensively."
Even with the increase, taxis will still account for less than five per cent of HandyDart-dispatched trips.
Kelsey said the extra money came from TransLink's operating surplus last year, lifting the HandyDart budget to about $58 million.
He said taxis are often a nimbler, more flexible option than HandyDart mini-buses, which are only cost-effective if they can link multiple passengers on the same route.
"Taxis are not the answer," Kelsey said. "They're a tool in the toolbox to solve customer problems."
The union representing HandyDart workers and some other critics have protested the move, but other seniors advocates have said taxis are an acceptable way to provide more service, provided cabbies are appropriately trained to ensure passengers are properly treated and secured.
Kelsey said recent taxi industry training has virtually eliminated past problems.
TransLink also wants HandyDart users to be more careful about booking trips they don't use – more than 24,000 scheduled trips were cancelled last year by users.
It's not clear whether a package of transit upgrades to be taken to referendum by Metro Vancouver mayors will also include more money for HandyDart.
Critics with the HandyDart Riders Alliance say more is needed to keep up with growth of the region's population of seniors.
The group says about $21 million in additional service hours is needed to catch up to demand after five years of HandyDart budget freezes.
"Seniors and people with disabilities won’t be mobilizing to get the ‘yes’ vote out in the transit referendum if HandyDart is short changed," spokesman Tim Louis said.