It’s been a few years since the MTA’s Access-A-Ride costs have made headlines, but two reports published this week have brought the issue back to the forefront of the discussion over transit offerings in New York City. Both the Citizens Budget Commission and the NYU Wagner’s Rudin Center have put forward proposals that could save the MTA over $100 million a year in Access-A-Ride costs, and while each report is worth consideration, they’re silent on the most important fix — investing in the accessibility of the New York City subway system.
Let’s start with the basics: The MTA currently spends around $470 million annually on Access-A-Ride, and trips cost on average $71. The fare is equal to a $2.75 MetroCard swipe so someone — largely subway riders and drivers along with a mix of tax dollars — supports this expensive program. Meanwhile, with out population rapidly aging, the MTA expects to spend over $620 million on paratransit in 2020 with the per-ride cost reaching nearly $80. With the MTA’s razor-thin budget margins, significant savings on paratransit can improve the program’s efficiency while averting future MTA budget crises.
The CBC’s report [pdf] is a straightforward presentation of fairly obvious policy solutions. The MTA, the CBC notes, uses wheelchair-accessible vehicles even in situations where the paratransit riders are ambulatory. The agency should better improve dispatching and refine its services offerings to align needs with vehicles while reducing costs. Better contracting practices, a common refrain for anything MTA, is part of the solution while the CBC also recommends “discourag[ing] excess use of paratransit by charging a higher fare” and calls for a better funding mix.
The Rudin Center’s report [pdf] leans on technology and ride-hailing apps in particular to improve service offerings. Both reports call upon transit agencies to work with Uber, Lyft and other web-based car hailing services to shift some paratransit trips to lower cost providers (though these companies’ fleets are far from sufficiently accessible for many riders). Both reports are sympathetic to the unfunded nature of the ADA mandate that transit agencies provide paratransit services. And both reports recognize how costs are going to begin to climb as the Baby Boomer generation starts to age.
Yet, I wanted to hear more about a potential other solution: Transit agencies, and the MTA in particular, should make more of an effort to ensure their systems are fully accessible. The MTA is working to fulfill a pledge to make 100 Key Stations accessible by the end of 2020, but our transit agency has seemingly interpreted the ADA in a way that doesn’t require them to retrofit old stations if the cost is prohibitively out of proportion. Thus, despite extensive renovations to, say, Smith-9th Sts., the station is far from accessible with no plans to rectify this accessibility gap in the future. (New build stations will, of course, be fully ADA compliant.)
Meanwhile, the MTA has shied away from reopening subway station entrances and exits that were closed shortly before the ADA become law because the agency is concerned doing so will trigger ADA compliancy obligations. Thus, all riders are paying the costs in high and increasing paratransit services and in inconvenient station design that leads to crowding and frustration.
What I would like to understand is another element of cost-shifting. The MTA has spent billions of dollars over the years on paratransit while barely complying with the ADA. How much money could it save on paratransit by investing upfront in a more aggressive plan to make more of the subway system accessible? These reports do not reach this question, but I think it’s key. If paratransit costs are going to increase by 33 percent over the next four years, is there another way to slow spending otherwise?