Earlier this fall, a group of advocates fighting for the rights of disabled New Yorkers made headlines when they filed suit against the MTA over plans for the Dyckman St. station rehab. The suit, which alleges an overall failure on the part of Transit to make the subway system handicapped-accessible, says that the authority is not fulfilling its obligations under the ADA as it renovates Dyckman St. in Upper Manhattan. The MTA does not comment on ongoing legal fights, and work has proceeded apace at the station.
Piggybacking off of the attention given to the lawsuit, Jillian Jonas wrote an extensive piece on the state of underground accessibility for Gotham Gazette, and as you would imagine, disabilities advocates are not happy. Only 89 subway stations are accessible while 379 are not. “It is an absolute disgrace that 20 years after the ADA was passed, more than 80 percent of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” attorney Julie Pinovar said in October and repeated to Jonas.
In essence, the problems are threefold: The MTA is legally required to upgrade only 100 “Key Station” under an exemption from the Americans with Disabilities Act, an unfunded federal mandate, and advocates have been happy with that arrangement. Meanwhile, escalator and elevator outages lead to situations where accessible stations are made inaccessible, and disabled riders have little advanced notice of the malfunctions. Finally, the MTA opted for Access-A-Ride in the early 1980s, and the costs from that program have spiraled out of control, leading the authority to try to cut services for the disabled. No one is happy with the arrangement.
Ultimately, the problem is one of paying it forward. MTA officials opted for a paratransit solution at a time when they didn’t have money or foresight. They reportedly believed Access-A-Ride would cost just $9 million a year, and now it costs $450 million annually. Had they spent the money over the decades on station upgrades, fewer riders would need Paratransit, and most of the system would be accessible. Had the federal government been willing to foot any of the bill for the costly ADA upgrades, the entire fight would be moot.
“The MTA made a stupid decision in the 1980s when … they [were] foolishly relegating people with disabilities to Access-A-Ride, not realizing how the cost would grow over the years if they didn’t do more than make buses accessible,” Edith Prentiss, a vice president with Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York, said. “For years, bus lifts were as unreliable as subway elevators are today.”
While Paratransit trips number just under 16,000 a day — compared with over 5 million daily subway riders — this is a costly problem that hits disabled riders particularly hard. They do not want to be relegated to second-class status and have been vocal critics of the MTA. Still, a solution remains out of hand and out of sight as money and costs are, as always, the overarching problems.