Home View from Underground MTA must install elevators during station work unless ‘technically infeasible,’ federal judge says

MTA must install elevators during station work unless ‘technically infeasible,’ federal judge says

by Benjamin Kabak

MTA contractors, seen here in a 2014 photo, celebrated the reopening of Middletown Road. The rehab project is now the subject of a federal suit alleging the MTA’s violation of ADA obligations. (Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann)

When New York City Transit embarked on the 29-stop station renewal program in 2011 targeting decrepit subway platforms outside of Manhattan, little did anyone realize how momentous this work would become. Last week, more than five years since starting the renovation that spurred a lawsuit — and after many more years of what many advocates have called a clear flouting of ADA requirements — the MTA lost the first round of this ongoing lawsuit as a federal judge ruled that the agency’s component-based repair work at Middletown Road, including replacement of a staircase without the addition of an elevator, was performed in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The ruling is a sweeping one, as Judge Edgardo Ramos held that the MTA must install elevators when renovating subway stations unless an installation would be “technically infeasible,” rather, as the MTA has argued over the years, too costly, and it is one I and many disabilities advocates saw coming last year when federal prosecutors joined the lawsuit. Even with this ruling on the books, the court battle is far from over as the MTA plans to argue that, in this case, installing an elevator at Middletown Road was indeed technically infeasible, but the decision opens the MTA to significant liability and may require the agency to pursue an aggressive uptick in increasing the number of accessible stations throughout the city.

For its part, the U.S. Attorney’s office took a victory lap. “The MTA is now on notice that whenever it renovates a subway station throughout its system so as to affect the station’s usability, the MTA is obligated to install an elevator, regardless of the cost, unless it is technically infeasible,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement last week. “Individuals with disabilities have the same rights to use the New York City subway system as every other person. The Court’s decision marks the end of the MTA treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens.”

The MTA, meanwhile, stressed the new philosophy pushed aggressively by Andy Byford: Accessibility is a new top priority. “The MTA is steadfastly committed to improving access throughout the subway, with a hard and fast goal of making 50 additional stations accessible over five years. We’re not wavering from that commitment,” MTA Chief External Affairs Officer Max Young said in a statement.

The question now though is whether that the MTA can perform any substantive work at any subway station without triggering the requirement to include elevators. In fact, I believe the ruling now requires the MTA to build elevators during any rehabilitation work. Let’s dive in.

Nuances in the ADA

The cruz of this case and in fact the long-time basis for the MTA’s antagonism toward installing elevators rests within two paragraphs of federal regulations relating alteration of transportation facilities by public entities. The governing regulation is 49 CFR § 37.43, and paragraphs (1) and (2) of section (a) form the basis for the legal dispute:

(1) When a public entity alters an existing facility or a part of an existing facility used in providing designated public transportation services in a way that affects or could affect the usability of the facility or part of the facility, the entity shall make the alterations (or ensure that the alterations are made) in such a manner, to the maximum extent feasible, that the altered portions of the facility are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, upon the completion of such alterations.

(2) When a public entity undertakes an alteration that affects or could affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function, the entity shall make the alteration in such a manner that, to the maximum extent feasible, the path of travel to the altered area and the bathrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains serving the altered area are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, upon completion of the alterations. Provided, that alterations to the path of travel, drinking fountains, telephones and bathrooms are not required to be made readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.

As you can see, these two paragraphs are very similar and rely on rather arcane legal nuances. Paragraph (1) mandates public entities to make accessibility alterations “to the maximum extent feasible” when altering “an existing facility or a part of an existing facility used in providing” transit “in a way that affects or could affect the usability of the facility.” The only limiting factor is thus the “feasibility” standard.

Paragraph (2) includes a carve-out the MTA has relied upon for years. If a public entity is undertaking an alteration that could affect usability of or access to a transit facility containing a “primary function,” the accessibility alterations may not be required “if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.” Whenever the MTA has argued that elevators would be too expensive to install, say, for example at Smith/9th Sts., this is the legal provision the agency cites in avoiding the ADA obligation.

What, though, you may be wondering, does it mean to “affect the usability” of a transit facility? And what does it mean for an area to “contain a primary function”? The feds describe a primary function as “a major activity for which the facility is intended” and lists a broad array of examples including fare collection areas and platforms. It seems then that nearly any alteration to a subway station would affect an area containing a primary function, and perhaps, you may think, the MTA has a legal basis for avoiding spending on high-cost elevators. Judge Ramos however does not agree.

The Court’s View

As part of the lawsuit, the MTA had argued that Paragraph (2), rather than Paragraph (1), contained the proper standard. Ramos’ decision essentially asks, “Why not both?” and holds that any time a public entity alters a station in a way that affects the usability in any sense, Paragraph (1), and the obligation to ensure wheelchair access unless technically infeasible, applies. Thus, even if the installation of an elevator would be expensive, the MTA still must include one.

Ramos’ decision rests on his interpretation of “usability.” Relying on previous 2nd Circuit precedence, Ramos determined that alterations that replace something as basic as a staircase with a functionally equivalent staircase do indeed impact the usability of the station:

The Second Circuit found replacements of kitchen floors and bathroom light fixtures to be “alterations” that changed the “usability” of condominium units under Title III provisions analogous to 42 U.S.C. § 12147. See
Roberts, 542 F.3d at 369. Defendants’ replacement of the stairways at Middletown Road Station was clearly an alteration that affected the station’s usability under Roberts. The alteration thus triggered accessibility obligations under § 37.43(a)(1).

Defendants argue that § 37.43(a)(2), not (a)(1), applies to the alteration because the renovations were to areas of the station that contained a “primary function.” But (a)(1) and (a)(2) are not mutually exclusive. Under § 37.43(a)(2), accessibility obligations are triggered when “a public entity undertakes an alteration that affects or could affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function.” An alteration can both affect the usability of a facility, which triggers (a)(1), and affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function, which triggers (a)(2). In addition to replacing the stairways, Defendants made extensive alterations to the mezzanine and platform floors of the station. Since these floors are where tickets are bought and trains are boarded, they clearly contain primary functions. Therefore, the Court agrees with Defendants that § 37.43(a)(2) also arguably applies to the renovations made at Middletown Road Station.

The MTA’s request for the court to determine that Paragraph (1) did not apply to Middletown Road was rejected, and at this point, by nature of this lawsuit, the MTA cannot argue elevators are too expensive. Rather, the agency must rely on the argument that doing so is “technically infeasible.” The court will hear arguments on just that very question regarding Middletown Road in the coming months.

What Does This All Mean

Now, all of these regulations and legal analysis may make your eyes gloss over, but it’s important. For all practical purposes, based on this ruling, whenever the MTA does anything substantive to a subway station, the Paragraph (1) obligations to install elevators will apply. Thus, any of the stations that were recently renovated via the ESI program are likely in violation of the ADA, and any other component-based stations that were renovated without full accessibility are likely in violation of the ADA as well unless the MTA can prove elevator installation would be technically infeasible and not just cost-prohibitive.

As you can imagine, this will cause some consternation for station rehabs going forward. While the MTA has pledged to meet an obligation to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by the end of 2020, any minor work to spruce up stations could be thrown in doubt. I believe the MTA could craft an appeal as the analogy Ramos made between renovations of a condo — which sees a true increase in value due to new floors and bathroom lighting — is a weak one and the crux of the legal decision. After all, the idea that a like-for-like replacement of a staircase affects or otherwise alters the usability of a subway station seems to be a stretch.

But the feds have long been clear that any post-1991 renovation to old structures grandfathered into the ADA were supposed to include full accessibility work, and even with a basis for appeal, the MTA will face an uphill battle to overturn this case. Whether the court will require the MTA to install elevators at all stations they’ve renovated in recent years remains an open question.

Meanwhile, since the component-based station rehab project kicked off, the MTA has significantly changed its thinking on accessibility. Andy Byford has expressed public displeasure that only 24 percent of stations are accessible and has promised 50 additional accessible stations within the next five years as part of his unfunded Fast Forward plan. That’s a laudable goal and one that may be accelerated as any work of substance the MTA performs on subway stations will now trigger ADA obligations.

Still, as always, without cost control, this lawsuit could carry a steep price tag for an agency that can’t figure out how to install elevators for a reasonable price. If it takes the full weight of the judiciary to force the MTA to cut costs, so be it. We’ll all be better off for it as accessible stations improves transit access for anyone who has to carry bags, push strollers, deal with injuries or grow too old to climb stairs. It’s high time for the MTA to work toward fully accessible stations throughout the city, judicial opinion or otherwise.

“This ruling highlights why the New York City subway system remains overwhelmingly inaccessible to people who cannot use stairs,” Michelle Caiola, Managing Director at Disability Rights Advocates and one of the parties to the case, said. “If MTA had been complying with the ADA over the past twenty-five years by installing elevators when it performs station renovations, we would be closer to full accessibility today. Clearly, MTA must change its practices related to accessibility as soon as possible.”

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Pete March 12, 2019 - 12:33 am

Ben – Maybe I am wrong, and please correct me if I am, but this seems a laudable goal while completely impractical. Those elevators cost millions of dollars, and you can’t just have one. Your average station needs 4. one on each side, and one to the mezzanine and one once you’ve paid your fare, to the platform.

That takes vast amounts of money away from making the safer and better for the mass of people.

Tell me, what really makes sense here? Is it time to throw away your principles and do what’s right?

Benjamin Kabak March 12, 2019 - 12:56 am

I’d say “no more than two local stations away from a fully accessible station” is laudable and reasonable. That should be the bare minimum. As I said though, this highlights the MTA’s cost problems. Elevator installation, while costly, shouldn’t be as costly as it is today.

Jessica Murray March 12, 2019 - 10:21 am

I’m sorry, but that’s neither laudable nor reasonable. Everyone should have access to the full subway. Barcelona’s system almost as old as NYC and most of it is underground. Out of 180 stations, only 9! are not accessible. They started upgrading their system in 1992 and are continuing until it is 100% accessible. That is a system people can use. What happens when your 2-station away elevator is out? You have to go 4 stations the other way to get to the subway. Would you be okay with that?

sonicboy678 March 12, 2019 - 3:36 pm

Faulty math is faulty…

Something to keep in mind is that, short of extensive reconstruction of certain parts of the subway, it will be impossible to reach 100% accessibility (and don’t try to argue to the contrary, as I guarantee that you’ll be utterly stumped with one particular station, given its layout). Something else to keep in mind is that studies must be performed in order to assess the best elevator placement for those stations that actually can receive them, which must be followed up by funding for procurement and installation. At the very least, cutting the gaps to predictable numbers is a good start, and we can go from there.

Other things to keep in mind are the number of stations in Barcelona’s system in relation to those here (Barcelona has about 1/3 of the number of stations as us) and the fact that in 1992, the subway was still in a recovery phase, meaning that the MTA was hardly in a position to put subway accessibility near the top. (No, buses will not help you, as their accessibility is independent of subway accessibility.)

Jessica Murray March 12, 2019 - 4:13 pm

Barcelona also has only 1/4 of the ridership as NYC. We’ve already established that MTA overspends on all capital projects and elevators are no exception. I’ll take 99% accessibility over 20% if there are truly stations that are not feasible. If they had started in 1992 (when the subway had recovered from the fiscal crisis), we would be much further than we are now. The fact is that they made a calculated decision to resist legislation by negotiating their own key station plan with the state (which they haven’t completed yet), and going all in on paratransit. We’re left with a program that costs more than half a billion per year and is nowhere near a comparable alternative to the subway. A “predictable” 1/3 of the subway being accessible is still 1/3 accessible. When you multiply percentages, you get about 11% of possible trips available. Would you be okay with only being able to access 11% of places you want to go?

sonicboy678 March 13, 2019 - 4:14 am

“…and we can go from there.” Apparently, that part never popped up on your radar, as I never indicated that I was content with just that number.

It also appears that you’re focusing too heavily on the subway to begin to take note of the streets (aside from the paratransit issue, which was probably because they knew that even if they wanted to, they would still require some time to get accessibility built into the system, and that was especially put on hold after politicians decided to start cutting funds only after the system was on its way to recovery and exacerbated by the recessions). So long as we have the buses (and the city finally makes improving them a priority), we can make accessibility more manageable for the subway (no more than two stops away as a short-term goal), only placing less emphasis on bus accessibility once the subway finally gets down to a handful of inaccessible stations (the ones that would be a real pain to even try to address without significantly more drastic changes).

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 11:36 pm

28 years ago, paratransit was designed as a largely temporary measure until cities became fully accessible.

In most cities, this has worked out basically OK.

In New York, the MTA has spent billions of dollars to rebuild stations from the ground up without adding elevators, and then spent millions more fighting disability advocates on court.

Nobody expected that.

No more than two stops away is a good medium-term goal, but the long-term goal is 100% accessibility.

The short-term goal is to get the MTA to comply with the law, which says that you have to add accessibility if you’re already rebuilding a station for other reasons.

The MTA is the *only* agency in the US who routinely violates this law. SEPTA in Philadelphia reconstructed the Market Street Elevated for structural reasons; result, all stations accessible. They did the same with the Frankford Elevated. Chicago did the same with all three branches of the Green Line, and the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line.

If the MTA had simply obeyed the law during their reconstruction of entire elevated branches in Brooklyn, we’d have 20 to 30 more accessible stations now. But they broke the law instead. It’s malicious.

sonicboy678 March 21, 2019 - 2:00 pm

You’re conflating maintenance (replacement of worn parts with functionally identical ones) with reinstatement of closed entrances and construction of new ones. Don’t get me wrong, we should absolutely have more accessible stations, but this isn’t something that’s so easily done. For example, ESI funding was set at approximately $1 billion for a good number of stations, but in the process, issues came up, leading to some of the stations being deferred. Throw elevators into the mix and the funding situation becomes even more hairy (and by the looks of it, Cuomo didn’t think about accessibility in any form when bringing that up). In addition, requiring that rehabilitation comes with elevators runs the risk of needlessly delaying an entire station (apparently, people are none too happy about reopening a station without accessibility, even if it’s in the works).

As for that bit about 100% accessibility being a goal, if we don’t do something about aspects of our infrastructure in order to make accessibility work, it’s an unattainable goal.

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:33 am

No, I’m not.

What the MTA did in Brooklyn was *exactly* equivalent to what SEPTA did on the Market-Frankford elevated lines. EXACTLY. SEPTA looked up the law and noticed that they were required to make the stations accessible.

The MTA ignored, violated, and broke the law, and we now have court rulings to prove it.

Alon Levy March 13, 2019 - 7:38 am

Berlin opened the U-Bahn 2 years before New York opened the subway and is planning to reach 100% accessibility next year (and if I’m wrong and there’s a delay then it’s by like 1-2 years, not 10 years). The S-Bahn is close to 100% accessible as well.

sonicboy678 March 13, 2019 - 12:06 pm

Do I really need to go over what I already stated?

Alon Levy March 13, 2019 - 12:40 pm

I did read what you said. You’re offering people with disabilities buses that get stuck in traffic and even with very aggressive priority treatments will average half the speed of the subway, all to avoid admitting that 100% subway accessibility is a) desirable, and b) feasible.

sonicboy678 March 13, 2019 - 2:50 pm

Oh, is that what I said? Really?

Because absolutely nothing I’ve said even remotely points toward that.

And calling 100% accessibility feasible demonstrates a willingness to throw reality out the window. Then again, considering some other stuff I’ve seen…

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:12 pm

You’re a dumbass. 100% accessibility is clearly feasible. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and London (UK) are doing 100% accessibility under MUCH more difficult circumstances.

New York is EASY to make accessible. The MTA have just been slackers and scofflaws.

You want a city where 100% accessibility is actually hard, look at London.

They’re mining a new underground tunnel to reroute the Northern Line at Bank in order to get accessibility (as well as pedestrian capacity upgrades); now that’s expensive.


Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:18 pm

Oh, worth noting London also had to demolish several multi-story office buildings and close a road for three years; underpin and transfer the weight for the foundation piles for other buildings; etc. etc. etc.

The MTA can get wheelchair access in any station in NY way easier than this. In particular, the elevated lines are all really really simple.

Chris Lawrence March 21, 2019 - 7:32 pm

You’ll note, however, that this project is only adding accessibility to the Northern Line platforms, on top of the existing accessibility of the DLR and Waterloo & City platforms. The Central line, and the connected Monument complex (District/Circle) will remain inaccessible, and interchanges involving the W&C Line will require leaving the station.

See here: https://www.hydeparknow.uk/2018/12/20/waterloo-bank-accessibility/

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:35 am

Like I said, London accessibility is HARD. They’re spending this much *just on the Northern Line platforms*.

The Monument station has its own accessibility plan, which they will get to in due course.

So does the Central Line but they haven’t really worked out how to do it yet (the buildings around the Central Line are all *insanely* expensive *and* mostly historic).

My point was that compared to this, making everything in the NYC Subway accessible is easy.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:07 pm

Chicago’s system is older than most of New York’s system. They are targeting 100% accessible, and all stations which are renovated have been made fully accessible, as the law requires.

Boston’s system is older than New York’s system. They are targeting 100% accessible, and all stations which are renovated have been made fully accessible, as the law requires.

London’s system is literally the oldest. They are targeting 100% accessible, and all stations which are renovated have been made fully accessible.

Philaelphia’s system has a station which is exceptionally difficult to make accessible — 15th & Market / City Hall, which has the heaviest masonry building in the world sitting on top of it. They’re spending the >$200 million necessary to make it accessible. It’s taking a while because of the extremely cramped conditions for construction and the need to underpin City Hall — but they’ll be done in 2023.

New York has just been a flagrant scofflaw. Andy Byford has the right attitude, but previous MTA leaders were criminals who belong in prison.

The result of this is that every MTA station which was rebuilt without wheelchair access since 1993 needs to be rebuilt with wheelchair access, NOW, and the MTA needs to find the money, whether they like it or not. They don’t have a choice; they broke the law, they need to pay up.

david vartanoff April 3, 2019 - 4:26 pm

Actually, Chicago is NOT making stations accessible when doing “tart ups”. see
about a cute new canopy, and NADA for ADA.

Nathanael April 12, 2019 - 4:15 pm

Yeah, they’re getting sued over that one! (Belmont)

CTA did one other “tart up” without wheelchair access but it was funded by Apple, and upon going through the law, it turns out if it is entirely privately funded, the ADA renovation requirements don’t trigger. So they didn’t get sued for that one.

Pete March 12, 2019 - 4:19 pm

Jessica – Is it better to spend a couple billion dollars (400 stations x 4 elevators each x $1 million = $1.6 billion. And it’s more likely that we are looking at $2 – 3 billion for elevators. How many people would that really serve? And how could that money be spent to, say, improve service to the millions fo daily riders. Those are the numbers I’d like to see, and that’s the decision that has to be made.
What is the best use of the money you have?

Alon Levy March 13, 2019 - 7:43 am

Millions of daily riders, to the exclusion of people with disabilities, strollers, or luggage.

eo March 14, 2019 - 10:40 am

You need to get your numbers straight. In a system that serves 5-6 million trips a day, there are not a million riders who will use elevators if they were available at every station. By their nature elevators are much slower than the stairs for all able bodied passengers, so very few of those will wait for the elevator to come and take the slow ride up or down. The elderly, the disabled, the ones with luggage or strollers will wait, but how many of them does the system have now? 50 thousand a day is very generous estimate. With elevators at every station you can maybe quadruple the number by attracting people who currently do not take the subway because of this, so 200 thousand. That is nowhere close to millions.

Alon, I am not arguing against accessibility, just check your numbers as statements like this damage your credibility as an expert.

Alon Levy March 15, 2019 - 6:59 pm

But you don’t need to get millions of extra riders from elevators for the project to be worth it. At $2 billion, which is around $6 million per station, you hit $40,000/rider (which is less than what the MTA wants to spend on SAS phase 2) at 50,000 daily riders. Can you get there? Very easily: the airports alone have around 200,000 O&D riders per day among them, and if you’re planning on a semi-reasonable mode share, that alone gets you to 50,000. Then add people with various chronic pain conditions, not to mention the intended use case of people wheelchairs, and you’re very deep in 6 figure territory.

Problem is, as comments here make it clear, New Yorkers who are not disabled hate people with disabilities. The costs in New York aren’t higher than in Chicago, there’s just a local culture of hate. That’s all there is to it.

sonicboy678 March 15, 2019 - 8:44 pm

“Pedestrian” observations…

That average of $6 million per station won’t cut it, especially if the goal is to reach 100% accessibility. Aside from the studies that would need to be conducted, funding would be needed to actually buy and install the elevators (or ramps, if space permits). Given that some stations don’t lend themselves to accessibility by design, extensive reconstruction of the infrastructure would be necessary to make accessibility feasible.

Alon Levy March 16, 2019 - 9:11 am

You know the average here is $2.5 million, right? An elevator is about $1 million. And this is a subway system that’s even older than New York’s.

sonicboy678 March 16, 2019 - 1:15 pm

Wow, a whopping two years! I’m so shocked!

You’re comparing one specific system with fairly consistent development and 173 stations to a system that’s actually three independently-developed systems with 472 stations and a ridiculous number of station types at various depths. Because of this, accessibility in NYC is already at a disadvantage, and because of how lines and stations were built, accessibility only faces more problems. Some stations have nasty curves that will make accessibility a more daunting task, and some are configured in other ways that make establishing accessibility an excessive chore at best (the narrow island platforms at several Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line stations, the stairs at Clark Street) and impossible at worst (it’s a good thing DeKalb Avenue was capable of being retrofitted with elevators).

The 42nd Street Shuttle requires its western end to be rebuilt in order to be accessible, and Nevins Street would need to be shifted deeper into the ground in a way that won’t create conflicts with the aforementioned DeKalb Avenue station (and its many leads) or with the surrounding parts of the Eastern Parkway Line. Combine that with many differences in topography and it becomes far more complex to establish accessibility. Some stations would be fairly simple, but with the number of things the MTA has to focus on, the less-than-ideal construction practices (understatement, but even rectifying this, it won’t be enough), and the lack of political will to make sure the MTA is actually well-funded in the first place, even those simple ones will end up taking a back seat. It doesn’t help that many of the simple ones aren’t key stations, making it harder to get the will to implement accessibility. I can only hope that we’ll finally get politicians who will fund accessibility improvements for as many stations as possible.

Alon Levy March 17, 2019 - 11:30 am

Do you think there are no complex multilevel transfer points here?

And actually the complex multilevel stations in New York are mostly already accessible as key stations; what’s left is for the most part single-line stops in shallow cut-and-cover construction, or els, or in open cuts.

The lack of political will is real and mostly involves people like you who respond aggressively when someone proposes making the system accessible. I haven’t seen anyone talk this aggressively when I compared tunneling costs, but propose accessibility and suddenly the “New York is special” people are out in full force. The physical infrastructure in New York isn’t special – only the hate for people with disabilities is.

sonicboy678 March 17, 2019 - 2:28 pm

Perhaps I should learn German. If I do, what I’m actually saying may finally register in that skull of yours. Then again, I get the impression of being high on fantasy, rather than understanding that reality isn’t so pleasant. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

The fact of the matter is, every case is different. Many stations can simply use elevators between the street and fare control, but they still need feasibility studies in order to determine exactly where to put them. For the ones where that won’t be enough (and there are quite a few, especially with the way the IND was built), something more must be added or changed. In some cases, the infrastructure itself must be changed, and until we address those issues, we will never have 100% accessibility (this is reality, not fantasy).

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:23 pm

Your vitriolic hate for people with disabilities is blatant, “sonicboy”.

In London, they recognized that elevators get used by evereyone and benefit women with strollers, people with heavy luggage, etc. as well as people with disabilities.

And think about this: the MTA is currently blowing $450-$500 million per year on paratransit, which is legally required *if* the subway isn’t accessible. Make the subway accessible, and you’ll save at *least* half that cost. $250 million a year.

Even at inflated New York City prices of $2.5 million per elevator, installing 400 elevators will pay for itself in FOUR YEARS just in avoided paratransit costs.

sonicboy678 March 21, 2019 - 2:14 pm

I love this. It’s like people look at certain cases and assume that it’s universal, even though some of the infrastructure itself creates problems with accessibility, and trying to rectify those particular issues requires extensive studies and closures just to have accessibility rendered feasible.

By the way, that “vitriol” line sure sounds familiar. It’s almost as if there’s some relation with Alon Levy, who’s also failed to do critical research/analysis for some claims (including where accessibility is concerned).

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:38 am

You’re pretty good at spewing unfounded drivel.

The fact is, in every other city in the world, they do the studies and figure out where to put the elevators as a *routine part of major station construction*. And in NYC, they’re all easy.

Hardest ones are all on the IRT, BTW; the IND was so massively overbuilt that there’s plenty of space.

Only in NYC do they ignore the law and just not bother to even try to put in elevators.

Jessica March 18, 2019 - 3:34 pm

First, it’s usually 2 or 3 per station, not 4 (almost all of the underground stations have one street to mezzanine elevator and 1 elevator to each track; some stations with separate platforms have one elevator from street to each platform). $1 Million is far, far less than what the MTA is actually spending on elevators (it’s actually in the range of $10-$13 Million for one elevator). So, the MTA’s own uninformed estimates are actually closer to $10-$11 Billion. If those number shock you, they should. This is far more than any other system is spending and there are likely corrupt and inefficient building practices inflating costs to a huge degree.

The budget for Access-A-Ride is $600 Million for 2019. Those costs could be reduced if people can depend on the subway to get around, but many cannot. The question is not about how many disabled people the elevators will serve, but how many people in general use the elevators. I invite you to hang out next to a street-to-mezzanine subway elevator for about an hour to see who is using them. You probably won’t see a wheelchair, but you will see lots of strollers, pushcarts, suitcases, older people, children, pregnant women, etc. etc.

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:39 am

MTA definitely has a contractor pricing problem. Alon Levy has dug into this. They’re getting gouged on everything. It needs to stop.

sonicboy678 March 12, 2019 - 5:36 am

Cost concerns (and bad arguments from judges) aside, how would it work? Would a station be allowed to reopen without functional elevators if the elevators are in the works? If not, then I can’t support any installation that comes with rehabilitation, as that risks placing more strain on communities if there are any delays (and even the best of workers can still end up behind if the conditions force them to).

For clarity, I would definitely like to see improvements in accessibility. I just think we should be mindful of potential impact those measures may have on other aspects regarding the same general infrastructure, as well as the fact that with the way the subway was designed, 100% accessibility is merely a pipe dream.

J Adlai March 12, 2019 - 8:59 pm

There are very few stations that are not able to be retrofitted for ADA accessibility. Three come to mind, and one of them is not presently used in revenue service.

eo March 12, 2019 - 9:04 am

And the courts have found a way to jack up bus ridership at the expense of the subway in the not so distant future! The way this will happen is as follows. Major station components will deteriorate due to age and lack of maintenance until they are no longer safe to use. Chipping concrete stairs or rusty metal ones on the elevated stations are the best examples, but there are other elements as mundane as lighting or painting that are likely to trip the same threshold. The MTA will not be able to replace the deteriorated elements because then it will need to spend like $20 million plus for elevators. With money always being short what do people think the MTA will be forced to do? It cannot keep the station open if it is dangerous, so the station will be shut down until money could be found for the repair and the elevators. The people who used to use the station will complain bitterly to their elected representatives and the MTA will cobble together temporary bus to the closest station. As this happens at more and more stations and the money from Albany or elsewhere will be hard to find, the “temporary” station closure and the “temporary” bus shuttle will become “permanent”. Over time the neighborhood around the station will decline and then spending the money to reopen the station will become even more difficult proposition. This is indeed more likely to happen to stations in the far ends of the lines rather than Manhattan. What do people think would happen if several station in a row at the end of the line experience this as is likely to be the case? The line might eventually get cut short because the “temporary” substitute surface bus put in place because of the closed stations duplicates the line. And the system shrinks …

Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for making all stations accessible and ADA compliant, but we cannot hold maintenance and replacement of existing elements essential to the safety hostage to accessibility at the existing stations. Any time the MTA is “sprucing up” stations it should make the station accessible if technically possible, but if the MTA is just making replacement and maintenance to keep up with safety requirements asking for accessibility is too much. Unfortunately the line between the two is very fine. For example, is replacing broken tiles “sprucing up” or safety maintenance? If they are floor tiles, they are probably safety maintenance. If they are wall tiles, they are probably “sprucing up” unless the tiles are falling onto the customers or the tracks in which case they might be safety maintenance.

By the way, this court decision probably kills forever any hope that any entrance closed in the past can be reopened as reopening such entrance probably requires some work and money expenditure and will trigger the accessibility requirement.

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:42 am

Given the MTA’s repeated illegal and criminal decisions to build inaccessible infrastructure when it could have been building cheaper accessible infrastructure (for instance, at Smith-9th), they just have to start obeying the law now.

If that means station closures… well, maybe previous mayors and governors shouldn’t have supported the scofflaw behavior. Scofflaws suffer.

smartone March 12, 2019 - 9:36 am

I do believe that subways should be ADA compliant .. but the Federal Government should pick up the tab .. this unfunded mandate is ridiculous and will add millions of dollars of additional cost to an already underfunded system.

Perhaps if it is a crisis we can get Federal Government to bring in the Army Corp of Engineers to install Elevators in every subway stop that does not have one (I AM 100% serious)

David Pilso March 12, 2019 - 1:24 pm

Yeah, i agree, someone should pay for it but it should’nt be me

Adirondacker12800 March 12, 2019 - 1:45 pm

…..wellllll.. it’s just a different hand taking it out of your pocket. Which also means the Federal government should be spending money in New York City.

Pete March 12, 2019 - 4:14 pm

Billions, actually.

Larry Penner March 12, 2019 - 10:23 am

Here is one way to obtain financial support to pay for accelerating the number of subway stations to reach compliance with the Americans Disabilities Act. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority receives $1.4 billion in annual assistance from various Federal Transit Administration formula funding grant programs. The MTA based upon the courts decision will have to update their long term Americans Disability Act Compliance Plan. This is currently in place and approved by the Federal Transit Administration Washington Headquarters Office of Civil Rights. Without an approved plan in place, it is difficult for the FTA to approve any new grant funding. The upcoming MTA $30 to $50 billion 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan will probably have to program up to a billion more for New York City Transit to dramatically increase the number of additional subway stations reaching full ADA compliance Who knows what other projects and programs may have to be cancelled to find the funding.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years 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).

CHristopher March 12, 2019 - 11:48 pm

I love the “unfunded mandate” people. It’s been 30 years since ADA went into law! At one point does it just become a mandate? We’ve had plenty of time to plan and do right in building a modern system that understands the needs of its ridership in a truly diverse city. All the handwringing I the world, it just what you should expect from a transportation system in the 21st century. This is no different than having good signage, modern gates, tap to pay — it’s all a package.

sonicboy678 March 13, 2019 - 3:44 am

It becomes a mandate when it’s funded, and it’s not always easy to establish. There are many stations where installation would be a rather simple task with available funding, but that’s not always available (existing rules that inflate expenditures aside, the MTA may also be forced to keep funds focused on specific issues).

Alon Levy March 13, 2019 - 7:48 am

Off-topic: your name links to a website URL with a typo – inaudbile instead of inaudible.

Asher March 13, 2019 - 5:47 am

As much as we want to allow transit to be accessible to all, at what stage is it cheaper to just pay for Access-A-Ride travel instead of fixing every station?

S March 13, 2019 - 11:04 am

Access-A-Ride doesn’t solve the problem for every New Yorker who could benefit, adds congestion to streets, can take much longer than being able to conveniently use the mass transit system most New Yorkers benefit from, and creates an ongoing cost that increases with the number of people who need it. Building accessibility into stations benefits far more people for far longer and, while also incurring maintenance costs, doesn’t directly increase in cost with the number of people who need it.

Jessica March 18, 2019 - 3:41 pm

That’s what MTA leadership decided in the 1980s and they were wrong. It hasn’t saved money. The AAR budget for this year is $600 Million. If they had consistently put 5% of the capital budget towards elevators for the last 30 years, we’d be much closer to full accessibility. Instead, they’ve invested heavily in creating a separate system that doesn’t work well, is not a comparable alternative to the subway, and segregates people with disabilities from mass transit. Plus, they are setting people up to become dependent on the service, so even as they make accessibility improvements, the perception is that the subways/buses are too unreliable to use, so many people make all of their trips by paratransit rather than using other modes.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:26 pm


It’s much, much cheaper to put in the elevators ONCE than to pay millions for Access-A-Ride every year.

This is known fact.

Jedman67 March 13, 2019 - 12:11 pm

Every construction project in NYC, especially on the subways, costs 2-4 times what it would virtually anywhere else in the world. Look at London and Paris, two very old cities with very old subways, managing to do everything NY does but better and cheaper.
What *should* happen now is the MTA and electorate should put pressure on the Governor and Legislature to initiate cost-control measures; to increase capital funding and improve accessibility all along the system.
The problem with MTA funding now is that the Governor has too much control and is unwilling to spend on MTA priorities unless it burnishes his image as an out of touch politician.

Alon Levy March 13, 2019 - 12:43 pm

Paris has literally never retrofitted a legacy station with elevators. It has 303 Metro stops, and no elevators except on a single line with 9 stations.

See costs here and read the comments for more data points, including Tokyo and Montreal.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:27 pm

France apparently has no equivalent of the ADA, or it’s very weak. Most other countries, including the UK, do have an ADA equivalent.

Billy G March 13, 2019 - 1:23 pm

Hell, man, it’s cheaper to put a callbox at the base of each staircase with a hard line to a dispatcher for disabled shuttle cars to take the customer to the destination of their desire for the price of a single metrocard swipe. If they want to be jerks about it, they could fix the destination to be the nearest ADA-compliant station in the system on the same line. And the customer could do the reverse at the ADA-compliant station nearest their destination. Appeal the judgment and file that as an alternatives option.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:29 pm

The hate and vitriol deployed at people with disabilities is strong in you.

It’s cheaper to just fix the damn stations and put the elevators in, than it is to pay lots of employees to drive cars around (which is what Access-a-Ride is). This is known. Access-a-Ride is very expensive.

Larry Littlefield March 15, 2019 - 3:10 pm

One option would be to have elevators go directly to the platforms, and cameras in the elevators.

When entering the system, a person at a central monitoring station would open the doors, but only if the handicapped person (and anyone else in the elevator) has paid. That same staff and cameras would provide security.

sonicboy678 March 15, 2019 - 4:20 pm

I’m pretty sure that’s not an option, especially since the platforms tend to be more directly under/over the street itself, rather than the sidewalks.

Also, trying to remotely operate the elevators creates yet another point of inefficiency.

Alon Levy March 15, 2019 - 7:07 pm

Tear… down… the… faregates…

(Okay, to be fair, I’m not 100% sure it’s feasible in New York. But the S-Bahn here has 1.5 million riders per weekday on two radial trunks and one circle. It’s similar to NYCT ridership per trunk, although I think the most crowded lines in New York are more crowded than the most crowded here.)

Or not, you can just do above-ground kiosks with turnstiles. Or just have landside elevators at shallow single-level stations like 110th Street on the 1.

sonicboy678 March 15, 2019 - 8:07 pm


Come back with something practical.

Alon Levy March 16, 2019 - 9:16 am

What’s impractical about landside elevators going direct to platform level at shallow stations like 110th?

sonicboy678 March 16, 2019 - 12:37 pm

That’s another thing. What is a “landside” elevator? Are you talking about a standard one?

Alon Levy March 17, 2019 - 11:22 am

Landside and airside are airliner terms meaning before and after security, respectively. So on the subway, a landside elevator is one outside fare control, at stations where fare control is level with the platforms.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:32 pm

New York’s shallow stations have nice wide platforms, mostly. It’s absolutely straightforward to drop “landside” escalators outside fare control, and have small disabled-access fare control gates at the bottom on the platform.

Chicago’s done this in a number of its subway and elevated stations. New York can phone ’em up and ask how to do it.

Where the sidewalks are bigger or you have access to an off-street building or parking lot, you can have “trainside” elevators and put fare control in a small kiosk outside the elevators if you prefer. This would be perfect for Smith-9th Street, which was illegally renovated recently.

sonicboy678 March 21, 2019 - 2:04 pm

You haven’t actually taken a good look at some of these stations, have you?

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:44 am

I’ve taken a close look at many of the stations, including all the ones I reference specifically.

You clearly have never taken a close look at them. But you sure do hate disabled people! You’re willing to make stuff up in order to make excuses to harm us!

SEAN March 15, 2019 - 4:34 pm

For goodness sake, just do it already! accessibility helps everyone, not just the elderly & the challenged. To say we don’t have the money or obtaining enough to complete the important projects is a load of bullshit. We always have enough to spend when it comes to the military, so why not on what helps society vs destroying it. Now spending said money wisely is another story when it comes to the MTA, but that isn’t a reason to drag ones feet on this serious issue.

sonicboy678 March 15, 2019 - 8:03 pm

Slow down, kid. It’s not inherently that simple.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:33 pm

It is inherently that simple, despite the hate you have for people with disabilities.

SEAN March 16, 2019 - 4:28 pm


Tell me what was wrong with my statement above? If we can spend billions of dollars on bombs that could blow up the world several times over, than we could take that money & put it to far better uses like making more accessible transit for everyone & that’s just the start.

sonicboy678 March 16, 2019 - 6:58 pm

For one thing, scale. Yes, the federal government provides some of the MTA’s funding, but the more important sources are considerably more local (county/municipal and state). For another, studies need to be done to determine how to best implement accessibility (if it can be done at all), which then need to have procurement and installation.

Jessica March 18, 2019 - 6:04 pm

The MTA is conducting a systemwide accessibility study right now. It’s expected to take at least another year. The problem is that they’re using the same contractors/architects who have done the other $40-50 Million per station accessibility renovations. Elevator consultants I’ve spoken to have told me that designing to MTA’s specs cost more for the equipment and use outdated technology to conform to mythical “standardized parts.” They over-engineer elevators when they only need to go one or two stories in many cases. If they cared about fixing this issue, they’d think outside the box, stop doing things the way they always have and figure out how to do more with the money they get for accessibility improvements.

sonicboy678 March 18, 2019 - 8:23 pm

In a few cases, it may be better to look into ramps. In some others, we would need more significant changes in the infrastructure just to get them in a position to receive accessibility treatments.

Keeping parts as consistent as possible makes performing maintenance easier, as there’s little need to fret over compatibility issues and vendors for parts.

In all likelihood, one aspect of the engineering issue is erring on the side of caution. Keep in mind that these are retrofits, not completely new infrastructure (which is its own can of worms). To be fair, I don’t doubt that the MTA’s hampering efficient installation with this aspect, but I have no idea what the planners are thinking, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re concerned about getting them in there without placing undue burden on the existing stuff.

We should absolutely have greater accessibility, but between the system’s history (the transit crisis was not that long ago, and I’d be lying if I said that we’d fully recovered), bad practices (no point in saying otherwise), funding (even with best practices, funding would still be an issue, especially since we’re talking about retrofitting most of the stations in the system), and lack of political will (I don’t think I need to explain this one), it won’t come quickly or easily. I can only hope for more favorable conditions.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:39 pm

The MTA definitely have a problem with incompetence in contracting. If they followed the practices of Chicago, Boston, or Philadelphia, and got the contractors which any of those cities use, they’d find everything was cheaper and better.

And that’s just US cities — getting some serious international advice would be even better.

But the real problem is historic MTA hate for people with disabilities. It was extremely straightfoward to make Smith – 9th St. station handicapped accessible. You build a new stationhouse at ground level in the empty parking lots under the southeast end of the station, with elevators (and extra staircases) dropping straight down to the new ground-level entry house. Two elevators total! Hell, you could make the station an express stop with a third elevator and a center platform. The ground-level station house could be quite spacious.

This is similar to the approach taken in Chicago and London for many stations: a new stationhouse at the opposite end of the platforms from the original inaccessible stationhouse.

Did the MTA even consider this? They did not. They rejected all requests by people with disabilities and spend millions on reconstructing the inaccessible entry to the station to be more inaccessible. It’s just an ATTITUDE problem.

Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:49 pm

BTW, I know the history of the regulation; the judge is correct.

The two paragraphs are independent requirements.

Benjamin, I’ll explain why there are two paragraphs here.

Paragraph 1 says, “if you’re replacing a staircase, you have to add an elevator or a ramp”.

Paragraph 2 says, “if you’re replacing a platform or bathroom, you have to add a fully accessible path to the platform or bathroom, unless that would be way out of line with the cost of the platform or bathroom project”.

I was paying attention during the Congressional discussion of the bill. There’s a reason these are written as two separate requirements. The first is reinforcing the absolute requirement that any new construction be ADA-accessible.

The second paragraph is about whether construction in one place requires you to do work on other parts of the station — for instance, if you raise the platform to be level with the train, does this require that you put elevators in at the same time? The rule says if it’s relatively cheap, you have to, but if it’s very expensive, you can go ahead and fix the platform (or the bathroom) and put in the elevators later. Which was intended to make faster progress: get the platform level with the trains now, even if you can’t get the elevators in for a few years.

Whenever a staircase is replaced, an elevator or ramp MUST be provided, and that’s what paragraph 1 is for. (There is a subtle exception in paragraph one — “the maximum extent feasible” — which allows for places where there’s no plausible way to put an elevator or ramp in, or where it has nowhere to go because the surrounding area isn’t accessible — this applies to some Metro-North “hiking trail” stations. And there’s another exception elsewhere for places where historic preservation regulations make it impossible, which applies in a couple of stations in Boston, but nowhere in NY.)

Al D March 22, 2019 - 9:31 am

Yet another example of MTA incompetence. The ADA has been around for a good, long while, and the MTA enjoyed an exemption from immediate compliance. However, here we are all these years later with limited access and the access that exists is pretty awful.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera March 23, 2019 - 4:34 pm

Ever since the ADA was enacted, most of the renovated MTA subway stations are not accessible with elevators of course.

Nathanael March 27, 2019 - 3:46 am

Legally, except where the statute of limitations has expired, the MTA now has to go back and add elevators to all of those rebuilt stations — top priority over anything else.

The MTA was really criminally incompetent. They should have just done it right the first time.


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