The future of the MTA’s $51.5 billion blueprint to improve the transit system has been clouded by uncertainty since being put on hold last June because of the pandemic-driven economic crisis.
But a new document offers a window into which capital projects are eligible for federal funding — such as subway accessibility, elevator and escalator replacement and station renovations — as the MTA attempts to get some of its 2020-2024 capital program on track.
The MTA is requesting more than $8 billion in financial assistance this year from the Federal Transit Administration, including $770 million for station accessibility upgrades, $620 million to replace elevators and escalators and $210 million for station renovations. The agency last January requested nearly $11 billion in federal funds for capital projects.
The 2021 appeal to the FTA includes pleas for money for replacement escalators at the 181st Street station on the A line and at the 125th Street stop on the No. 1 line, although the MTA says full accessibility at the stations “will be addressed in future projects.”
Joseph Rappaport, an advocate for riders with disabilities, said the MTA has a history of not making stations accessible during renovations, citing the so-called “Enhanced Station Initiative” launched in 2016 that gave several stations makeovers that did not include elevators.
“Look, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 and it required that when there was significant rehabilitation, you have to make the station accessible at the same time,” said Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled. “But the MTA didn’t do that and hasn’t done that for 30 years.”
Seeking a Mayor Pete Boost
The MTA had planned to put more than $9 billion in the 2020-2024 capital program toward station and accessibility upgrades until the plan was derailed by the pandemic, which sent ridership plummeting.
Still, 11 more subway stations were made fully accessible last year amid the crisis.
An MTA spokesperson said the agency is trying to maximize what it can do, given the uncertainty surrounding the capital plan. The MTA in December received a commitment for another $4 billion emergency infusion of federal money to close operating budget gaps and avoid massive service cuts and layoffs.
The spokesperson, Andrei Berman, said the public hearing is an annual requirement, but the list of projects — which includes more than $200 million in requests for electric buses and $981 million for multiple structural subway repairs — are not locks to receive funding.
“Nor does it guarantee a commitment to proceed with each project as described,” Berman said. “At the same time, the new MTA Construction & Development [department] is working to aggressively cut costs as we do more with less.”
Agency officials have expressed optimism that the long-delayed congestion-pricing plan to generate capital projects revenue for the transit system by tolling vehicles entering the most congested parts of Manhattan will move forward under new federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said the agency faces competition from other struggling transit agencies across the country.
“There is a lot of competition for a little bit of money,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for the new administration and the new transportation secretary to show their prioritization of transit and greener travel.”
‘Well, Some Other Time’
The outline of the projects for which the MTA is seeking federal aid, which include some from previous five-year capital plans, was quietly included in a legal notice of a Feb. 23 virtual public hearing on capital projects.
Three escalators at 181st Street on the A line, one at 125th Street on the No. 1 line and two at the Pelham Parkway stop on the No. 2/5 line in The Bronx — which is ADA-compliant — have reached the end of their useful lives, the document notes. The MTA is requesting $25 million in federal aid for what is projected to be a $43.5 million project.
“For people who can’t go up the stairs or who have a disability, it’s a real problem to not have the option of an elevator,” Erika Correa, 44, said Thursday after encountering an out-of-service escalator Thursday at the 125th Street stop on the No. 1 line.
The MTA’s inability to include ADA upgrades as part of past station and escalator projects has led to multiple lawsuits accusing the agency of violating federal law.
As part of a 2020 settlement of a federal lawsuit, the MTA agreed to install elevators at the Long Island Rail Road’s Amityville, Copiague and Lindenhurst stations after being sued for not including them in earlier station renovations.
“That’s what the MTA has been doing for decades, rehabilitating stations and saying, ‘ADA access, well, some other time,’’ Rappaport said. “The MTA policy should be that they will not renovate or renew a station without making it accessible.”
The $770 million request for station accessibility upgrades is the largest among the 132 projects for which the MTA is seeking federal grant money. Only about a quarter of the 472 stations in the subway system meet ADA standards.
“Ultimately, we’re looking for the MTA to prioritize improvements that upgrade today’s system and provide a more equitable system for everyone,” said Colin Wright, of TransitCenter, an advocacy organization. “That includes the Americans with Disabilities Act investments.”