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Riders hold thumbs up for local taxi

At left, Fran Shaffner settles aboard a River Falls Shared-Ride Taxi Service cab with help from driver Carolyn Brezina to go from the pool at the River Falls Country Inn to her downtown home. On the right, blind resident Paco Grande often takes a taxi to go exercise at Snap Fitness on the south end of town near where he lives. Many regular riders get to know the taxi drivers well, like 'cab captain' Gordy Guptil shown helping Grande get to the door during last week's cold, slushy weather. <i>Debbie...

Some of its patrons call the River Falls Shared-Ride Taxi Service the best-kept secret in town.

A visit to its office last Friday revealed a bustling little hub where the juggling dispatcher calls to cabs and answers the phone several times a minute: "Taxi."

One rider has a clinic appointment, and one needs a ride back from a haircut.

An impatient caller checks in every few minutes, finally understanding when the dispatcher explains how the service is one cab short that day. A late-spring snow-and-ice storm had broken a taxi windshield the day before.

Passenger praise

Fran Shaffner said she uses the services a lot, "I go out about every other day."

When ice and snow drifts do not impede her electric wheelchair, Shaffner rides it to many places in town. Smiling, she said people know it's good weather when they see her rolling along sporting a neon-orange safety flag.

The resident rides a cab to water therapy, to doctor's appointments at the River Falls Medical and to the grocery store and other errands.

Shaffner said she's lived in River Falls and been a taxi customer for 13 years. She knows the drivers, and they know her.

"This bunch of drivers are very kind," she said, "and they're good."

She tells the story of one day when she tried to take advantage of decent weather but became bogged down in mud and snow near a melting drift by Burger King. One call on her cell phone to the taxi service had her "rescued."

Shaffner said the service always seems busy but does a good job getting everyone where they need to go.

Paco Grande is a blind veteran who moved to River Falls in 2010, remembering it from visits in the 1960s. He said friends and a "good infrastructure" drew him to the city, part of which is the taxi service.

Grande said he's blessed with family and friends who help him and a tandem bike from the veteran's hospital, but he likes the taxi service and its drivers.

"It's great to converse with them and they become friends," said Grande.

He said it feels as though his family "won the lottery" as it prepares to move into the Habitat Eco Village.

Grande often takes a local taxi to or from the building site on Apollo Road, as well as Snap Fitness and the grocery store. He mentions that his teenage son sometimes takes a cab to work.

He said the drivers are conscientious and punctual. For example, they consider it a priority when people need to get to work, school or a doctor's appointment.

Grande said about the taxi service, "This gives me a certain independence and spontaneity that I wouldn't have otherwise."

Phylis Johnson, 76, says she uses a taxi to get around during bad weather.

"Here are people who are our unsung heroes," said Johnson.

She says all the drivers assist their patrons in getting to the door of where they're going then back again to the vehicle. Johnson has witnessed the attentive service they give everyone, including the elderly and disabled.

"Where else can you go for a buck and half?!" exclaims Johnson, who sometimes takes a cab to volunteer at the downtown store Second Chances, from where she often calls a taxi for customers going to other places.

Johnson said the taxi is especially important for people who have health concerns. She said most people in good health don't think about mobility issues.

Running and running

So the service goes, giving some 25,000 rides a year to all kinds of patrons -- about 17,000 of those to seniors and disabled persons.

The cabs offer discounted one-way fares of $1.50 within city limits to disabled persons and those more than 62 years old; $2.75 within city limits for riders ages 12-61 and $1.25 for children 3-11. Children younger than three ride free.

The Shared-Ride Taxis run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

River Falls experienced taxi-funding tension early this year as part of federal budget woes, including sequestration-related freezes.

Since the taxi-service funding comes from a combination of federal and state grants, the city was financing the service independently before the money was released in April.

Officials discussed in a City Council meeting how 'running in the red' was more desirable than ceasing operation.

Reports on the service say its projected budget for 2013 is about $267,620, and it expects to receive about $220,000 in grants. The city makes about $47,000 in fare revenues each year.

Last year grants covered about 65% of the service cost. This year it will be about 60%.

City Finance Director Julie Bergstrom said River Falls has been researching ways to expand the taxi service and its revenue.

UW-River Falls conducted a study in December, recommending that the city extend hours, market to new ridership and increase fares for seniors and the disabled to $2.50 and fares for adults to $3.75.

River Falls did not act on any of the recommendations yet. Bergstrom said people seem to want service to Hudson, which is well outside the taxi's five-mile-radius service area.

"A lot of people have requested that," she said.

Reach the River Falls Shared Ride Taxi Service by calling 715-425-7878.