Over the past few months, as city and state representatives to the MTA Board have squared off over the scope and omissions in Transit’s Enhanced Stations Initiative, the MTA’s adherence to the requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act has come under the microscope. The agency agreed a few decades ago to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by 2020, and the MTA is, it says, on pace to meet this goal. Disabilities advocates say that, despite the Key Stations, the MTA routinely flouts the requirements of the ADA by not investing in elevators when non-Key Stations undergo renovations. That the ESI stations aren’t being made accessible is a key sticking point, and now the feds, focusing on a 2013-2014 renovation of the 6 train’s Middletown Road stop, have joined a suit alleging MTA violations of the ADA.
The suit, one of many the MTA currently faces alleging similar violations, has been working its way through federal court for nearly two years. A June 2016 DNAInfo article profiled it when the plaintiffs first filed. The feds, in something of a surprise move this week, filed a complaint-in-intervention to join the suit.
Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, condemned the MTA. “There is no justification for public entities to ignore the requirements of the ADA 28 years after its passage,” he said. “The subway system is a vital part of New York City’s transportation system, and when a subway station undergoes a complete renovation, MTA and NYCTA must comply with its obligations to make such stations accessible to the maximum extent feasible.”
The crux of the government’s complaint — available here as a pdf — involves the MTA’s request to the Federal Transit Administration for funding for the renovation. The agency spent $21 million but could not find a budget for elevators to make this elevated stop accessible. Prior to the renovation, the FTA had asked the MTA to defend its claim that it would be “technically infeasible” to include elevators, and the never MTA never provided such justification, the feds claim. Subsequently, the claim alleges, NYC DOT conceded that elevators could have been technical feasible had they been incorporated into early project designs. After a lengthy back-and-forth over funding, the FTA determined that the MTA had violated the ADA, and the MTA lost out on federal dollars for rehab. Now the feds are seeking an injunction mandating that the MTA install the necessary elevators at Middletown Road.
The MTA has said it will defend the suit on the merits, and disabilities advocates are thrilled that the feds are finally taking legal sides in this fight. A litigator with the Disabilities Rights Advocates noted that the feds’ involvement “sends a clear message to the MTA that they can’t continue to get away with business as usual.”
My semi-informed guess is that this is a test case for the feds and the MTA. Multiple other suits are percolating through the courts right now involving the MTA’s alleged violations of ADA requirements, but this one is a particularly strong one. It is focused on only one station and rests on a determination by a federal agency that the MTA actually violated Title II of the ADA. It’s as close to an open-and-shut case on the ADA as one may find, and if the MTA is intent on fighting it on its merits rather than settling, the feds are likely to win.
With a victory in their pockets, federal prosecutors would have stronger arguments for some of the tougher cases against the MTA, including potential suits targeting the Enhanced Station Initiatives. Transit Center’s Jon Orcutt, for one, recently told Politco New York that the MTA should probably be sued over the ESI, and this seemingly easy case puts that goal in reach. “They’re doing major work in stations and not doing anything on accessibility. They probably need to be sued directly on stations to bring that issue to a legal head,” Orcutt said.
Of course, this could still settle out, but it adds a new wrinkle to the MTA’s resistance to fulfilling the terms of the ADA on a system-wide basis, and it’s about time prosecutors forced the agency’s hand. The subway system should be on a path to full accessibility; it’s a moral imperative and a legal one too.