The MTA is leaving disabled New Yorkers behind

Subway station renovations in New York City should include accessibility for the disabled.

Spring Street subway station in Manhattan

Spring Street subway station in Manhattan Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is spending $1 billion on the “Enhanced Subway Initiative” to renovate 30 subway stations, including new features such as USB ports and countdown clocks. But few of the enhancements, other than improving lighting and signage, would open up the subway system to passengers with disabilities.

In November 2017, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota announced the $836 million Subway Action Plan developed by MTA leadership, transit experts, innovators, community representatives and top management consultants after Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the MTA. The plan was to stabilize, improve and modernize the features causing most major delays, including signals, track and power.

What’s missing from governor’s and MTA chairman’s programs? Progress on long-overdue accessibility for passengers with disabilities. If passengers with mobility impairments, who are largely shut out of using the current subway system, were asked to prioritize station enhancements, they would ask for elevators, eliminating the vertical and horizontal gaps between the train and the platform, installation of or repair to worn-down tactile warning strips at the edge of platforms (important for passengers with limited vision and mobility disabilities) and better information on elevator service. Others might prefer ramps, where feasible, instead of elevators. Passengers who are blind or have low vision might ask for improved train signage.

How many times have you heard a subway service change announcement that is muffled, crackly or faint? Those who are hard of hearing would ask for a better public address system.

But none of us in the disability community seem to have been asked about our needs. At times, I feel as if commuting in a power wheelchair on the subways is like visiting all of Dante’s Rings of Hell.

Any future program of major subway renovations should incorporate input from the disability community. Fewer than 25 percent of New York City’s 472 subway stations are wheelchair-accessible. Most of those came out of the Key Station plan to be made accessible by 2020, a result of a 1994 lawsuit settlement signed by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. The settlement also included Access-A-Ride (a curb-to-curb paratransit service for seniors and people with disabilities who cannot use mass transit) and accessible buses.

The MTA has added elevators through the capital program and the Transit Improvement Bonus, which, in certain districts, allows real estate developers to apply for a special permit in order to obtain an area bonus in exchange for improvements to the adjacent station. For years, the disability community has asked the MTA to work with us to develop a ranked list of stations that still need elevators based upon the same criteria as was used to develop the Key Station plan. The MTA has repeatedly said there is no need for such a list. While the MTA has installed elevators as part of the capital plan and the Transit Improvement Bonus, imagine if the ESI money were being used for that as well. How many elevators or signal repairs would the ESI's $1 billion pay for?

Nor has the MTA addressed service problems with the existing elevators. Even when they are working, elevators are often overcrowded. Anyone waiting for a multilevel elevator can attest that passengers in elevators are often not seniors or those with disabilities. Instead you’ll see baby carriages, bicycles, luggage, transit workers with equipment, delivery staff, pregnant women or parents traveling with young children. The MTA needs to develop an effort to encourage passengers who are able to climb the stairs to do so. Of course, additional elevators would be helpful to meet the demand, especially when an elevator needs repairs.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey S. Berman believes that the MTA’s habit of renovating stations without adding disability access is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This month, Berman joined an existing lawsuit from disability rights advocates, arguing that the $27 million renovation of the Middletown Road station in the Bronx should have included an elevator. (DIA is a plaintiff in this lawsuit and one about the need for elevator maintenance.)

The MTA should realize that when even a Donald Trump appointee is saying it needs to improve its record on a civil rights issue, it’s long past time for it to do so.