Despite a desperate shortage of wheelchair-friendly vehicles only a small proportion of funding made available to help fit out new vans has been taken up

More than $1 million was set aside by Waka Kotahi to help pay for wheelchair-accessible vehicle fit-outs but only $150,000 has been used.

The funding was made available through the current National Land Transport Programme, which began in 2021 and finishes mid-2024.

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But despite being two-thirds of the way through the programme, only 12 percent of the money has been spent.

The funding is given out and approved regionally under the Total Mobility scheme, but only 6 of the 14 regions had approved any funding as of May.

Canterbury had not approved any of the $215,000 it had available.

Environment Canterbury Public Transport general manager Stewart Gibbon said there had been very few requests received but it had applications in the works.

“We have approved two requests for Total Mobility funding this year. One has been approved and contracts have been sent to the operator for them to sign. Applications can typically take around four months or longer from the beginning to the end of the process.

“Another application request which we received and approved at the end of last year is close to completion. This has been delayed as the vehicle was not in the country at the time of the application, and there were delays in shipping it from overseas.”

“A third request has been approved in principle. It is in the very initial stages of the process and no contracts have yet been provided.”

In Wellington, $12,500 out of the $132,000 had been allocated.

A spokesperson for Greater Wellington said this was a reflection of the applications it had received.

“No applications to Metlink for Te Hunga Whaikaha Total Mobility funding have been declined, and Metlink would welcome more applications from eligible providers.”

In Auckland, a greater proportion had been paid – $63,400 of the $254,000 available, about a quarter.

A spokesperson for Auckland Transport said it had a number of applications in the works and expected to allocate all of its available funds soon.

“You can’t expect small business enterprises to wear all the costs of unit standards, licensing and purchasing these because at the end of the day, if they go broke, well, they’re not there for anyone.” – Jack Harper, Driving Miss Daisy

Public Transport Authorities are able to subsidise up to 60 percent of the total cost of the fit-out, but this still leaves a large cost to be covered by the vehicle owner.

A Waka Kotahi spokesperson said this was likely the reason for the low uptake for the subsidy.

Auckland Transport said it would like to be able to fund a greater proportion of the cost.

Driving Miss Daisy owner and director Jack Harper said upfront costs to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles were “off-putting” compared with investing in other types of vehicles.

“Your typical fare from A to B is exactly the same for somebody in a wheelchair as it is for [other services] and yet, obviously, there’s quite a lot more demanded.

“So from an operator’s perspective the investment into a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is quite off-putting, and yet having said that the need is there, there is just a constant demand for the service.”

A hoist fee of just over $11 is paid by Waka Kotahi to an operator any time they do a trip that uses it. 

Harper said with an ageing population, demand for Driving Miss Daisy services – which primarily cater to the elderly – were increasing, and so was demand for wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

To qualify for any vehicle fit-out subsidy, drivers also had to comply with a number of health and safety standards.

“The regional councils will demand you have unit 15165, which is a unit standard applicable to the use of and the safe administering of people in wheelchairs and getting them in and out of such vehicles.

“If you take Auckland as an example, I think there are a total of seven unit standards which they demand if you want to be a mobility scheme operator and there’s a huge cost attached to achieving those unit standards … especially when you’re struggling in a tight labour market to find drivers anyway.”

He said there needed to be greater incentives for companies to invest in wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“It does require looking at, there’s no doubt about it, because this is a large and growing part of the population, which we can’t ignore, and we can’t ignore disabled people.

“They do need to be looked after and you can’t expect small business enterprises to wear all the costs of unit standards, licensing and purchasing these because at the end of the day, if they go broke, well, they’re not there for anyone.”

Last year research by Waka Kotahi identified a lack of wheelchair-accessible vehicles as a problem, alongside their high capital and running costs.

A review into the Total Mobility system is underway.

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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