The MTA wants to increasingly tap private developers for help with accessibility upgrades in subway stations — but critics warn that similar partnerships have a spotty track record.

The transit agency and the Department of City Planning are pushing the “Elevate Transit: Zoning for Accessibility” proposal to have real estate developers build and maintain elevators that connect their properties to neighboring stations outside of Manhattan. In exchange, developers are granted zoning bonuses that can include expanding a building’s floor space.

MTA Chairman Patrick Foye touts public-private partnerships as an option for improving access for riders with disabilities in a system where only 27% of the 493 subway and Staten Island Railway stations are currently accessible to riders who use wheelchairs or have other mobility challenges.

“I think there is a role for private capital, always,” Foye told THE CITY Wednesday after the MTA board meeting. “And I think as we reconstruct the capital plan, public-private partnerships, the use of private capital, ought to be part of it.”

The MTA’s most recent $51 billion five-year capital program initially called for about 10% of the plan to go toward accessibility projects. The 2020-2024 plan was put on hold last summer, but Foye has said that accessibility improvements in the transit system are ripe for private investment.

“I think [Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant] stations are an opportunity where a public-private partnership approach may make a lot of sense,” Foye said on the “Recalibrate Reality: The Future of New York” podcast with real estate developer and former MTA board member Scott Rechler, which goes up Thursday

Privity Equity

The Manhattan-bound platform on the E and M lines at the Court Square-23rd Street station in Queens became wheelchair accessible earlier this month through the addition of an elevator and other upgrades that were funded by the developers of the 67-story Skyline Tower, the tallest residential building in Queens.

The MTA plans to make the Queens-bound platform ADA-compliant as part of its 2020 to 2024 capital program, which initially called for spending more than $5 billion to make 66 more stations accessible. 

MTA Chairman & CEO Patrick Foye in Long Island City, Dec. 23, 2020, Credit: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

But advocates said the partial accessibility of the Court Square-23rd Street station also highlights some potential shortcomings of developers building and financing elevator work.

“Our biggest concerns were maintenance and half-accessible stations,” said Jessica Murray of Rise and Resist’s Elevator Action Group, which advocates for mass transit accessibility.

Janno Lieber, the MTA’s chief development officer, said that the zoning proposal “for the first time would truly put us in partnership with the city’s land-use authorities” to install more elevators in stations.

Public review of the proposal could start next month, officials said.

“It’s an idea that our team has been working with City Planning for a couple of years on,” Lieber said. “We think it’s very exciting because it could deliver elevators and ADA accessibility at additional pace.”

The proposal would expand developers’ zoning incentives, which are currently limited mostly to Manhattan, according to the planning department.

“A full recovery from COVID-19 requires proactive planning for a more equitable and accessible city,” said Joe Marvilli, a DCP spokesperson.

Maintenance Issues

Of the 340 elevators in the subway system, 52 are already under the watch of third parties, typically property owners whose buildings connect to neighboring stations.

And some property owners have repeatedly been flagged for doing a poor job of maintaining elevators and escalators — which, in some cases, perform worse than the MTA’s own equipment.

“The MTA has got to be a lot smarter about these partnerships,” said Joseph Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. “It will really have to reverse decades of bad practice.”

Over the last year, MTA data shows, four of the 10 subway elevators with the worst 24-hour availability rates are privately maintained.

The elevator with the poorest showing is a privately maintained unit at the 42nd Street-Bryant Park station that, according to MTA figures, was out of service nearly 40% of the time. 

Two other privately maintained elevators in Brooklyn — at Jay Street-Metrotech and at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center — were down nearly 25% of the time.

“The main question is whether the MTA can figure out a way of maintaining elevators in the subways — whether they own them or someone else put them in place,” Rappaport said. “So far, the MTA has a very poor record on that front.”

Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business leaders that together employ more than 1.5 million New Yorkers, noted the MTA has relied on the private sector to come up with multiple ideas that benefit the transit system.

For instance, the new live digital subway map — where commuters can track subway train movement in real time on mobile devices —  is among the fruits of the public-private Transit Innovation Program.

“It’s an opportunity to say there’s a way to move forward with priority projects like ADA stations, even in a time when the MTA’s revenues make that difficult,” Wylde said.