Dozens of heavily indebted wheelchair taxi operators who faced being forced off the road for failing to pay their taxi licence fees have won a stay of execution after the state government backed off from its threats to put them out of business.
But the reprieve might be temporary, with the taxi industry regulator yet to propose a solution for operators experiencing hardship and industry voices adamant the $28,000 annual licence fee is unaffordable.
The crisis also threatens to reduce the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis in service, further disadvantaging passengers with disabilities, who say taxis are already unreliable.
The Taxi Services Commission began issuing final notices late last year to operators who were in arrears on their annual payments, which have risen in cost every year since being released by the former Brumby government in 2009.
The commission followed through on its warning and put a small number of licence holders off the road, but late last month reversed its hardline position.
''The [Taxi Services Commission] has decided not to cancel the licences at this stage and is currently considering a range of options before taking any action,'' Transport Minister Terry Mulder wrote to one wheelchair taxi licence holder last month.
Taxi Commissioner Graeme Samuel said a lasting solution had not yet been found. ''The commission has some receptiveness to the position that says we ought not to be taking wheelchair-accessible taxis off the road for failure to pay a fee that is clearly going to drop in a few months' time, and we're now working on a mechanism to deal with that,'' he said.
From July, the annual licence fee for wheelchair-accessible taxis will be reduced to $18,400, in line with a finding of Professor Allan Fels' taxi industry inquiry.
But Mr Samuel put operators on notice that the government wanted them to better serve passengers with disabilities.
A spokesman for Melbourne's wheelchair-taxi operators, Brhanie Brhanie, said the government had bled licence holders dry, charging annual fees they could not meet on their meagre incomes.
''This is an essential service that the government should be subsidising,'' he said. ''But the government is leasing the licences at nearly $30,000 a year, expecting us to serve the disabled community without assistance.''
Denis Nelthorpe, who has represented some operators in his role as manager of the Footscray Community Legal Centre, said many were virtually destitute.
''When you look at why these drivers have got these problems, it's essentially poverty, the lack of viability of being a driver and by and large there is no one responsible for their welfare,'' he said.