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
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.