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MTA Crosses Street With Long-Delayed Hunter College Station Elevator

The stairs at the Hunter College station in the Upper East Side, Sept. 30, 2020.
The stairs at the Hunter College station in the Upper East Side, Sept. 30, 2020.
Jose MartinezTHE CITY

The MTA’s long-delayed pricey plans to make the 68th Street Hunter College station accessible to subway riders with disabilities will have to clear additional hurdles more than a decade after elevators were proposed for the Upper East Side stop.

The transit agency has recommended shifting the location of a lift that would lead in and out of the station to avoid the more difficult task of installing one inside a building at the CUNY campus.

It marked the latest twist in a drawn-out saga that has seen the planned station overhaul slowed in part by neighborhood opposition as the projected price tag increased.

“The longer the wait, the higher the cost will be,” said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, which is part of a 2017 class-action lawsuit filed against the MTA. “And the more they will have really betrayed the trust of the public.”

The elevator is now supposed to be installed on the northeast corner of East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, instead of the southeast one, according to the MTA, as a way around “structural engineering challenges.”

The change could further delay a project that was included in the MTA’s 2010-2014 Capital Program. Elevators have already been added at seven other “key stations” whose upgrades were also included in the five-year plan.

‘A Big Difference’

The proposed changes to the Upper East Side station overhaul are being submitted for review, as required by law, to the Federal Transit Administration.

The federal agency’s 2016 environmental assessment of the project found the construction would have “no significant impact” on the neighborhood’s character, on subway or bus operations or on noise levels and air quality.

“As an older person, just trying to get up and down those stairs starts to exhaust you,” said Manuel Rodriguez, a 58-year-old courier who was hauling a luggage cart with packages up the stairs at the station. “I’m getting up there in age, so an elevator would make such a big difference.”

In addition to the street-level elevator, the plans call for two more lifts that would connect the station’s mezzanine level to its subway platforms, according to the MTA.

The change could further delay a project that was included in the MTA’s 2010-2014 Capital Program. Elevators have already been added at seven other “key stations” whose upgrades were also included in the five-year plan.

Longer Wait, Higher Cost

THE CITY reported in April 2019 that the price tag on the 68th Street Hunter College project was forecast to increase from nearly $67 million to $116 million because of “added architectural, structural, electrical and utility relocation work.”

An update on the project, from January, projected a $120 million cost.

The station was among 100 designated “key stations” that must meet all Americans With Disabilities Act requirements by the end of 2020.

The 68th Street-Hunter College station, Sept. 30. 2020.
The 68th Street-Hunter College station, Sept. 30. 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

“They have had 30 years to come into compliance with the ADA,” Dooha said. “And I am unmoved that they cannot at least achieve compliance with the key station agreement.”

The 1994 key station agreement was part of a settlement that cleared the MTA from being in full compliance with the ADA.

About a quarter of the 472 subway stations are fully accessible. The MTA had proposed making accessibility upgrades at 66 more stations as part of its next five-year capital plan.

But the $51 billion plan to maintain and improve the transit system is on hold due to the pandemic-driven collapse of the agency’s finances.

Engineering Challenges

Fierce opposition from neighborhood groups and from residents of the Imperial House, an East 69th Street apartment building, contributed to delays on the planned elevator and stairwell work at the 68th Street Hunter College stop.

Imperial House tenants had objected to a new station entrance being built near their homes, with one telling The New York Times in 2012 it would affect “the residential and pristine quality of 69th Street.”

As property negotiations and engineering design continued, the MTA discovered that “significant structural modifications” would be needed to install an elevator in a Hunter College building on the northwest corner of East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, according to the plans posted online.

The MTA says the needed work includes re-supporting the structure, redirecting loads and removing a floor.

By relocating the work, the MTA said in the plans, “the structural engineering challenges can be avoided” at a station that in 2019 was used, on average, by more than 23,000 people on weekdays. A Hunter College spokesperson said officials at the school have not received information on the project since October 2019.

The new plans also call for a street-level stairway into the station to be built on the northeast corner of East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue and, MTA records show, “not adjacent” to the Imperial House.

“This is a win-win and we look forward to moving ahead with this critical project — making one of the most-used local stations in the system accessible for all New Yorkers,” said Andrei Berman, a spokesperson for the MTA.

The transit agency had planned to make a presentation about the elevator project to Manhattan Community Board 8 on Wednesday, but that’s now anticipated to take place later this year, according to the MTA.

“I got a bad knee, so I just do my best with the stairs,” said Judy Drakes, 67, who was catching the No. 6 at the station last week. “But I sure could use an elevator.”

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