Home New York City Transit The MTA and accessibility: a few thoughts as the ADA turns 30

The MTA and accessibility: a few thoughts as the ADA turns 30

by Benjamin Kabak

Interim MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, MTA Construction & Development President Janno Lieber, MTA New York City Transit Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility Alex Elegudin, and Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities Commissioner Victor Calise commemorate the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the Astoria Blvd station on the N/W lines on Mon., July 27, 2020. Four elevators have been placed in service at the station, making it fully accessible. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

In normal times, the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act would have been cause for a grand celebration. But these are not normal times, and the three-decade anniversary of the landmark legislation passed a bit quieter than it otherwise would have. Still, the MTA marked the occasion by celebrating the opening of ten new elevators at four subway stations across the city, and while the coronavirus financial crisis has thrown the future of the MTA’s elevator-heavy capital plan into serious doubt, the agency is trying to forge a better path on accessibility.

“Make no mistake: Adding four new, accessible stations with elevators will make a big difference in the lives of our customers with disabilities,” Janno Lieber, the President of MTA Construction & Development, said to mark the moment. “But the critically important work of making 70 more stations fully ADA compliant as part of the … Capital Plan cannot be achieved if the plan’s funding is cut as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Accessibility must and will always remain a core priority of any Capital Plan, but our ambitious 70 station plan only works if we have a fully funded MTA.”

It’s a brutal twist of the knife really. After years of incredibly hard and often-frustrating work by disabilities advocates, the MTA had finally adopted a capital plan with a real commitment to accessibility. Spurred on in part by legal obligations and in part by Andy Byford’s commitment to accessibility as well as Sarah Feinberg’s long-term recognition across various positions that the ADA is law and not a suggestion, the MTA’s capital plan represented a true commitment to ADA accessibility, but with the U.S. Senate GOP unwilling to pass a COVID relief bill that includes transit funding, this capital plan is on hold until and unless a relief bill materializes or the Democrats somehow take the White House and Senate in November.

So the ADA work is in limbo, and I wanted to mark the 30th anniversary — a few weeks late thanks to my wrist injury — with a few thoughts on where things stand. The intertwined health and economic crises have thrown a hard wrench into the MTA’s plans, and the prognosis for a recovery is murky. Still, work will, at some point, soldier on.

The ADA is not just a moral imperative; it’s the law

For years, the MTA had a tendency of treating the ADA as a moral suggestion, but it carries more weight than that. Yes, we should strive to make our transit system as accessible to everyone as possible and as step-free as possible, but the ADA isn’t just a recommendation. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal legal mandate, and while critics can claim the unfunded nature of the mandate unduly burdens local municipalities and state or city transit agencies, it’s still a law.

Feinberg, the current interim NYC Transit President, made this point to me while she was on my podcast last year: Following the law isn’t optional. The recent cultural shift within the MTA deserves some praise, but ultimately, the agency’s hands were tied by legal obligations. The current leader cannot answer for the sins of long-gone predecessors, but watching the MTA celebrate 30 years of the ADA after spending so many of them resisting the mandates certainly raised my eyebrows. As transit dollar dry up, advocates and MTA watchdogs will have to make sure the MTA adheres to its legal obligations to make the system more accessible.

Everyone benefits from ADA compliance

A wider fare gate would make the subway more accessible and more customer-friendly for everyone.

As part of the MTA’s renewed commitment to the federal mandate, Byford brought in Alex Elegudin in mid-2018 as the agency’s first Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility, and Elegudin has introduced a variety of new elements to various subway stations. The most prominent of those has been the Accessibility Law features at Jay St./Metrotech, including better platform wayfinding and wider fare gates. We’re a far cry from Japan’s pervasive system of tactile paving, but these new elements show how ADA compliance can benefit everyone.

For instance, elevators aren’t just for those who physically unable to climb stairs. Rather, elevators are a boon for people with large packages or big strollers or those who find too many stairs too arduous. Wider turnstiles allow people with luggage and strollers easy access to the subways. These enhancements and improvements should have been introduced system-wide years ago, and they make the subway a more welcoming place for everyone.

The MTA’s ADA past is one of resistance

While current leadership has recognized the need to fulfill ADA obligations, the MTA’s past is littered with examples of resistance and failed legal challenge. Most recently, the MTA faced a lawsuit joined by federal prosecutors in 2018 alleging ADA violations, and the agency lost that suit in 2019. As of last year, the MTA must install elevators during any station renovation unless technically infeasible. As I wrote last year, I believed this to be the right decision, and it’s just one of many legal losses the MTA has suffered as it has flouted ADA requirements over the past few decades. The key stations — a list of 100 stations to be made accessible by 2020 — was never intended to excuse other obligations under the law.

Notably, the Subway Action Plan was one of those initiatives the MTA used to hide ADA obligations. Started by the governor, the Subway Action Plan combined cosmetic station improvements with operational efficiencies, but the MTA at the time claimed it did not have to make any of the enhanced stations fully accessible. This was a claim unsupported by law and remains a sore point a few years after the fact.

Sunk cost and high price tags loom large

Finally, even as the MTA has embraced accessibility and ADA compliance, cost control and lost dollar remain the two elephants in the room. The agency has routinely spent upwards of half a billion dollars on Access-a-Ride each year because the subway isn’t sufficiently accessible. Had some of this money been invested in elevators across the city, the MTA could have reduced its spending on paratransit long ago. Instead, the agency has suffered through the worst of all worlds — too many inaccessible stations and prolonged spending on the inefficient Access-a-Ride program.

To make matters worse, the MTA’s ADA work suffers from the same cost problems as the rest of the capital plan. The MTA had planned to spend $5.2 billion on elevators for 70 stations – or approximately $74 million per station. Even if the most complex stations — such as Union Square — require multiple elevators across a number of platforms at varying depths, this average dollar figure represents runaway cost problems. The system isn’t accessible because the MTA can’t spend efficiently and has spent years hiding behind these cost control issues rather than seeking out real reform efforts.

Ultimately, the MTA has charted a future that involves a more accessible subway, and that’s a good way to begin the ADA’s second 30 years. Of course, it shouldn’t have taken so long and it shouldn’t suffer at the hands of COVID-19. But if the first three decades are any indication, a more accessible subway will be a fight and one worth waging.

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11 comments

Handwasher August 11, 2020 - 8:57 am

“To make matters worse, the MTA’s ADA work suffers from the same cost problems as the rest of the capital plan … the MTA can’t spend efficiently and has spent years hiding behind these cost control issues rather than seeking out real reform efforts.”

This seems to be a huge ongoing problem with the MTA, also affecting other projects like the eponymous second avenue line. Does anybody have any recommended readings as to the root cause(s) of these runaway cost problems, and how they can be overcome? I’m curious as to the true reasons why New York rapid transit development is so much more expensive and slow than comparable cities worldwide.

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Keenan August 14, 2020 - 6:23 pm Reply
Handwasher August 19, 2020 - 12:03 am

Terrific article! Depressing but important to read. Thanks Keenan, that was exactly what I was looking for.

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Tom O'Keefe August 11, 2020 - 10:32 am

Thanks, as always, for your great work. Not on the ADA piece, which you’ve covered admirably over the years, but I’d love if you could address Feinberg’s leadership in a future post.

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Larry Penner August 11, 2020 - 10:59 am

As we recently celebrated the 30th Anniversary for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), here are two ways the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can obtain financial support to pay for bringing more subway stations into compliance. The MTA receives $1.4 billion in annual assistance from various Federal Transit Administration grant funding programs. They have to periodically update their Americans Disability Act Key Stations Compliance Plan with FTA. This is reviewed and approved by the FTA Washington Headquarters Office of Civil Rights. Without an approved plan in place and implemented on an agreed schedule, it can adversely impact the FTA’s ability to provide new grant funding. Why not ask any major business, college or hospital who benefit from subway stations adjacent to their facility to sponsor installation of elevator(s). Let them split the cost 50% with the MTA NYC Transit in exchange for naming rights to the elevator(s). The MTA needs to make some difficult decisions as to what other projects and programs may have to be canceled or reduced in the $51 billion MTA 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan which is no longer financially viable. This is necessary to find funding for installation of ADA compliant elevators at more subway stations in , Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan and at more Staten Island Railway stations in Staten Island.

(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, MTA Bus, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and NYC Department of Transportation along with 30 other NY & NJ transit agencies).

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Matthew August 11, 2020 - 11:37 am

We should set the fare on the reduced fare MetroCards for disabled based upon the percent of stations which were handicap accessible(and met a minimum standard for service up-time) so that the MTA had a positive reinforcement financial incentive to make as many stations as accessible as possible and to keep them accessible by making timely repairs. While I doubt it wouldn’t have any significant impact on their budget, even small incentives can have a big impact on performance when budgets are tight.

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Larry Littlefield August 12, 2020 - 9:56 am

“Does anybody have any recommended readings as to the root cause(s) of these runaway cost problems, and how they can be overcome?”

The same reasons our other public services are bad and getting worse despite one tax and fee increase after another.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2018/08/15/an-open-secret-mta-capital-costs-have-soared-to-pay-for-underfunded-metro-new-york-construction-union-pensions/

Basically, the construction industry awarded itself massive increases in worker and management pensions, and then they all cashed in and went to Florida. They are looking for someone to pay. Private developers have responded by going non-union, leaving the MTA to foot the entire bill for past public AND private construction. They are donating money out the wazoo to make sure transit riders are sacrificed to pay for this.

When people say that “labor costs” are too high in New York, they aren’t talking about those who are actually working right now, and certainly not anyone hired in the past 15 years. They’re screwed too. Ironically, the Mafia used to get 2 percent of every contraction project in NY, in exchange for nothing. They broke that in the 1990s. But then Generation Greed grabbed so much that it costs 50 percent extra, in exchange for nothing.

There is only one affordable ADA solution. Shut down all the non-accessible stations, slash service, and inform later born generations that this and much higher taxes are their future, so they’d be better off elsewhere.

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Ben Guthrie August 12, 2020 - 2:06 pm

City Hall R/W station: one elevator/one “floor” and the station is compliant. Why isn’t it?

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Allison August 15, 2020 - 6:08 pm

The bigger problem is that even the supposedly “accessible” stations are only sometimes accessible. They rely on elevators which are frequently out of order, and there is no redundancy — if one elevator is out of order, there is seldom any (accessible) alternative. If you can’t get yourself up or down the stairs, you are just plain stuck.

Imagine if non-disabled subway riders would get where they want to go only most of the time. But some days they’d get dumped off at some closed-up station with no obvious way to get anywhere. How much ridership do you think you’d get that way?

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SEAN August 17, 2020 - 6:08 pm

Very true Alison, but unfortunately the needs of the disabled are often overlooked in both obvious & non-obvious ways.

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Nathanael September 3, 2020 - 9:40 am

Forsee v. MTA lists a long list of stations which were renovated illegally: the MTA will have to redo these stations with elevators. They have no other legal choice. There are 28 where they have no choice; they broke the law and must redo the renovations legally — and I don’t think this is a complete list, since I think Smith-9th is another.

(N line)
1 Fort Hamilton Parkway
2 18th Avenue
3 Kings Highway
4 Avenue U
5 86th St
6 Bay Parkway
7 W 238th St
(N/W)
8 30th Avenue
9 Broadway (Astoria)
(J/Z/L)
10 Broadway Junction
(R)
11 Bay Ridge Avenue
12 53rd St
(3)
13 145th St
(C)
14 163rd St
(F)
15 57th St
(F/M)
16 23rd St
(B/D)
17 167th St
18 174th-175th St
(B/C)
19 72nd St
20 86th St
21 110th St
(N/W)
22 30th Avenue
23 36th Avenue
24 39th Avenue
25 Broadway (Astoria)
(3)
26 Sutter Avenue/Rutland Road
27 Junius Street
(1)
28 168th St

This leaves out the stations listed in the lawsuit where the MTA “plans” to do illegal renovations of as of the filing of the lawsuit, which is 5 more.

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