When it comes to getting around New York City in his wheelchair, Dustin Jones has found three methods that generally work for him.
There’s the subway, though roughly three-quarters of subway stations in the city are still not ADA accessible. There are buses, but Jones said those always tend to run a little behind where he lives in the Bronx.
And then there’s a relatively new paratransit program run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority: the Access-A-Ride on-demand e-hail pilot. Launched in 2017, this pilot program allows more than 1,000 users of the MTA’s paratransit service, known as Access-A-Ride, to use an app to request yellow and green cab rides on-demand for just $2.75 per trip. Normally, Access-A-Ride users have to book rides a day in advance. “The e-hail paratransit service has been a godsend,” Jones, a board member at the advocacy group Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, said of the widely popular pilot program. “It is the only way where a person with a disability can travel and get a straight ride anywhere on-time or on-demand.”
But now, as the pandemic-battered MTA faces down a $16.2 billion budget deficit through 2024, that on-demand Access-A-Ride program is one of the many services the agency says could be cut if as much as $12 billion in federal rescue funds doesn’t come through for the MTA.
During the MTA’s monthly board meeting last Wednesday, agency officials laid out a “doomsday plan” if a federal rescue package that includes billions for the transportation authority does not materialize. (The MTA already secured $3.9 billion in federal aid in March, but those funds were exhausted by July.)
The doomsday plan spells disaster for all riders and commuters in the New York region. Subway and bus service in the city could be cut 40%, commuter rail service could be slashed in half, and much needed capital improvements like subway modernization and new subway cars could be delayed indefinitely. And while the message from the MTA was that pretty much every service, improvement project and even a large swath of the workforce could end up on the chopping block if federal aid doesn’t come through, riders with disabilities could face an even worse impact if all of these potential cuts are realized.
In addition to officials raising the possibility of eliminating the Access-A-Ride on-demand e-hail pilot, the long overdue installation of new elevators in subway stations could be indefinitely delayed. The agency’s 2020-2024 capital plan included over $5 billion devoted to installing new elevators and making other accessibility upgrades at 70 subway stations in the city, but much of that work could now be put on hold. “People with disabilities are often among the first to see services cut and the last to be included in the conversation,” Jeff Peters, communications director at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, wrote in an email. “With only 25% of the city's subway stations wheelchair accessible, people with disabilities are already at a disadvantage. Budget cuts may mean a decrease in upkeep, increasing the time it takes to repair out of service elevators and escalators, and we may perhaps even see them fall into disrepair.”
While Jones has mostly been avoiding the subway these days because of the coronavirus, his one subway trip since the pandemic began was a reminder of the hurdles that people with disabilities face in trying to access subway stations. When he traveled down to the 161st Street-Yankee Stadium subway station, he found that the AutoGate – the automatic entry gate that lets riders using wheelchairs enter or exit the platform – was locked with a chain. “I was trying to figure out how to get in,” Jones recalls. “I then had to literally go and talk to the ticket guy in the booth and let him know, ‘Excuse me, I'm trying to use the train and someone has the door locked,’ and by chance there was an MTA worker walking by and he heard me, so he opened the door with the lock and took the chain off, and then let me through.”
The MTA has made no secret of the urgent need to address its accessibility problem. Some installations of new elevators has actually continued through the pandemic. In July, agency officials marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with the unveiling of new elevators at the Astoria Boulevard station in Queens. The MTA’s chief development officer, Janno Lieber, said at the ceremony that the agency has introduced more efficient and cost-effective measures to make the upgrades, including simplifying designs and bundling the work with other projects. "We're doing the things that put us in a position to have ADA stations faster, better and cheaper and we're confident we're going to get there, if we get the money from Washington,” he said at the time.
But while advocates recognize the severe financial bind that the agency finds itself in, some say that the upgrades that riders with disabilities have been waiting years for, and the services they’ve come to rely on, are non-negotiable. The MTA has faced multiple lawsuits from advocacy groups and individuals with disabilities over subway accessibility. “When it comes to the cuts, the elevator situation, the upgrades – that’s not an option for them to take that off the table,” Jones said.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, and in many press conferences and interviews over the past few months, the agency’s top leaders have characterized the fate of the MTA as out of their control because of the financial losses caused by the pandemic. “The future of the MTA and the future of the New York region lies squarely in the hands of the federal government,” Foye said at Wednesday’s board meeting. “Without this additional federal funding, we will be forced to take draconian measures, the impact of which will be felt across the system and the region for decades to come.”
The possibility of eliminating the Access-A-Ride on-demand pilot program has users and advocates worried, especially as they remember the shortcomings of the traditional Access-A-Ride paratransit service.
Having to book a traditional Access-A-Ride trip at least a day in advance means that users can’t count on the service for any spontaneous or last-minute travel. While Jones said he used the service for a while, he abandoned it in 2015 out of frustration. “I got so sick and tired of calling to book a trip a day, 24 hours or two days in advance, and then having the drivers come late,” he said.
Traditional Access-A-Ride trips are also shared with other riders and, because of that, can lead to out-of-the way routes and long trips. Alison Lynch, a staff attorney at Disability Rights New York, an advocacy and legal services organization, does not use Access-A-Ride, but said she’s heard stories about the inconvenience of the service. “A lot of what I was hearing personally was that these trips that would be booked, you'd have to do it days in advance, you had a chance that potentially your ride might not even show up, you would be told that you had a pickup time four hours before you needed to get somewhere and you were driven all over the city before you were dropped off,” she said.
Given those frustrations, Jones wasn’t the only one who found the Access-A-Ride e-hail pilot program to be a “godsend” when it was introduced. But while the pandemic could put its future in jeopardy, the MTA already had plans to amend the pilot program before the agency faced such a severe budget deficit. Last year, the MTA announced plans to expand the pool of pilot participants from 1,200 to 2,400 users, but also said that it would cap monthly rides for each user at 16. And instead of each ride costing $2.75, riders would receive a per-ride subsidy of up to $15 per trip, with the rest paid out of pocket. Fans of the pilot program panned the planned changes. Since the pandemic began, those changes have been put on hold, meaning pilot participants still have access to unlimited $2.75 on-demand rides.
While the current pressure for the MTA’s future has been placed on the federal government – and its ability to provide billions in aid – Jones said he wishes the MTA itself had done things differently during the crisis. “You want to cut back service and you want to cut back enhancements of subway stations and you want to take away e-hail, but at the same time, during this pandemic, you’ve been giving away free rides on the buses for five months,” Jones said, referring to the fact that local buses in New York City have not collected fares since March 23 in order to help drivers socially distanced from riders. Fare collection resumes on Aug. 31. A spokesperson for the MTA declined to comment on Jones’ criticism.
With the pandemic still ongoing, Jones said his and others’ ability to advocate for their interests is limited, since the MTA’s public meetings are happening virtually. “Normally, every month, we’re at their meeting, we’re protesting, we’re talking, we’re letting them know how we feel, we're letting them know what needs to be done,” he said. “We have not been able to do that in months. So now we're reduced to watching them on Zoom.”
For now, Jones is holding out hope that federal funding for the MTA is forthcoming. “At the end of the day, if the MTA doesn’t get this money that they need, it’s going to hurt a lot of people – and it’s going to hurt a lot of people with disabilities – and we’re going to lose freedoms that we’ve only just gotten in the past couple of years that we’ve never had before,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair, certainly not 30 years after the ADA was written.”