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Advocates Worry Accessibility Will Be Sacrificed in MTA Funding Crunch

An elevator installation at the Astoria Boulevard stop in Queens, on Feb. 17, 2020.
An elevator installation at the Astoria Boulevard stop in Queens, on Feb. 17, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The MTA made opening more of the subway to riders with disabilities a centerpiece of the agency’s capital improvement program unveiled last year — with 10% of the $51.5 billion plan pegged for adding elevators at more than 60 stations.

In a subway system where barely a quarter of the 472 stations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the addition of elevators or ramps would, the MTA pledged, make the subway 43% accessible.

Now that the MTA’s coronavirus-driven financial collapse has put virtually all upcoming projects on hold, riders with disabilities and advocates worry accessibility upgrades may not get back on track for years — even as litigation seeks to force the issue.

“I feel like this is back to square one again,” said United for Equal Access founder Dustin Jones, a wheelchair user and advocate from The Bronx who commutes to Manhattan by subway. “I feel like the MTA is going to find a way to use this pandemic as a turning point in their favor.”

Officials delivered a bleak financial outlook Wednesday at the monthly MTA board meeting, pleading for $3.9 billion in emergency federal assistance. The money would help close a massive 2020 operating deficit brought on by a collapse in revenues from ridership and subsidies and taxes that help fund the transit system.

“To be clear, this is a four-alarm fire,” said MTA Chairperson Patrick Foye. “We are facing the most acute financial crisis in the history of the MTA.”

Bob Foran, the agency’s chief financial officer, said wage freezes, service reductions, additional fare and toll increases and trimming or delaying the 2020-2024 capital plan are possible without a second round of federal funding.

“All options have to be on the table,” Foran said.

No ‘Clear Path’

Victor Calise, the first MTA board member to be a wheelchair user, acknowledged the agency faces some “tough choices.”

But “we can’t start by reducing accessibility,” said Calise, who was finally approved by the State Senate earlier this month after being nominated to the board in February by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks with newly-appointed MTA board member Victor Calise in February 2020.
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks with newly-appointed MTA board member Victor Calise in February 2020.
NYC.gov

The MTA in January pledged to commit $13.5 billion in 2020 to capital upgrades from previous capital plans — including ADA-compliance projects at 23 subway stations. Among them: Queensboro Plaza, 149th Street-Grand Concourse and 68th Street-Hunter College, where the installation of elevators has been delayed for years.

Because of the COVID-19-spurred pause that began in mid-March, the MTA awarded just $2.3 billion in work and is “without a clear path to move forward on much of the balance,” Janno Lieber, the transit agency’s chief development officer, told the board.

Lieber described the accessibility upgrades as among the “flagship programs” that are now delayed.

Legal Pressure

A spokesperson for the MTA said accessibility remains among the agency’s “top priorities.”

“Shame on the federal government for leaving vulnerable New Yorkers and their advocates in limbo when projects are ready to be bid out if funds were available,” spokesperson Tim Minton told THE CITY.

The MTA has been hit with multiple lawsuits, dating to the 1980s, for not including elevators in station renovations.

“If and when they start up renovations, they will be required under the law to include elevators,” said Michelle Caiola, managing director of litigation for the nonprofit group Disability Rights Advocates, which has repeatedly tangled with the MTA in court.

Caiola said advocates “understand the magnitude of the [funding] issue,” but still intend to keep the pressure on the MTA to meet its mark.

“We’re concerned, and that’s because historically accessibility always moves to the bottom of the heap, in terms of what the priorities are,” she said. “We are concerned that if they are going to be strapped, they will move on with other projects.”

Transit officials said they are hopeful that advocates will push for federal funding alongside their frequent adversaries at the MTA.

Joseph Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled, which is part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the MTA, said he’s looking toward New York’s congressional delegation to secure the funding.

“We have an influential House delegation, we have powerful senators, even though they’re in the minority,” he said. “They absolutely have to make sure the question of transit funding is at the top of the list.”

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