When the Culver Viaduct’s Smith/9th Sts. station reopened on Friday, the politicians came out en masse to support the station. Although the MTA acknowledged the delay in restoring F and G train service to Red Hook’s subway connection to the rest of the city, politicians made more than mere note of the delay.
“Finally, the long, long wait my constituents suffered is at an end,” City Councilwoman Sara M. Gonzalez said. “While the delays continued, residents of Red Hook endured longer waiting times and distances. I am confident they will like what they see as they begin to utilize this station again. Now, whether their transit needs are for employments, health, entertainment, academic or other personal choices, they will leave and arrive in this splendidly transformed station and I share in their joy. I look forward to advocating further with Red Hook residents as we seek further transit improvement options.”
What no one mentioned was the station’s lack of elevator access, and as riders returned to the station — even as work continued, in fact — I’ve received more questions concerning the MTA’s ADA obligations than just about anything else related to the project. Local business owners voiced their outrage on Twitter. “Smith/9th St subway station: $32 million, 2 years, no handicap access,” the social media arm of Seersucker, a restaurant on Smith St. above the Carroll St. station, noted. “How did NYC officials let that happen?” They’re not the only ones wondering, and so I set out to investigate why Smith/9th Sts., 87.5 feet above the Gowanus Canal, contains escalators and stairs but no elevators.
According to the MTA’s release on the station reconstruction, the $32 million projected included “ADA features” but not ADA accessibility. Stair risers and treads are now uniform dimension, and handrails are at the proper height and size. The platform edges now contain tactile warning strips as well. But that’s it, and with more steps leading up to the station entrance, it’s now even harder for straphangers with limited mobility to navigate the station.
The MTA has already fielded inquiries concerning ADA-accessibility at this station, and spokesman Kevin Ortiz issued a statement: “The design for ADA elevators at this station was structurally unwieldy and financially prohibitive due to the station’s layout.” I spoke to Ortiz yesterday afternoon, and he elaborated on the situation. Considering the geography of the station over the canal and its height, the MTA estimated requiring four to six elevators to make this station ADA-compliant, and given the ridership — under 5000 fares per day, 286 out of 421 and 93 out of 157 in Brooklyn — the elevators were cost-prohibitive and economically inefficient.
“But what of the ADA requirements?” an astute observer may ask. It’s a valid question as the ADA appears to require transit agencies to spend some part of a project on ADA upgrades and generally require rebuilds to be ADA compliant. As I understand it from MTA sources though, the agency has an ADA waiver. They must outfit 100 Key Stations with full ADA access by the end of the decade, and the MTA is currently ahead of schedule. But for new projects, they can argue for an exemption if doing so is structurally infeasible. If a 90-foot high station that spans a body of water wouldn’t qualify there, I don’t know what would.
Furthermore, that there has been no lawsuit filed against the MTA strikes me as strong evidence against any wrong-doing as well. Disabled riders and their legal advocates are not shy about flexing their muscles. They successfully sued for ADA upgrades at Dyckman St., and the MTA’s settlement included promises of an elevator. Two years after Smith/9th Sts. station shuttered and around five years after plans were first unveiled, no court challenges to the plans exist.
So what remains is a tough situation made worse by circumstance. No one in the 1930s anticipated the ADA when building the station, and now, in 2013, we have a new station without full ADA access. It strikes me as a situation with no good answer.