Transit and disability rights advocates called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to increase oversight of privatized subway elevators, as officials plan to lean heavier on companies to make stations accessible.
The MTA, on Dec. 10, announced new or renovated elevators for more than two dozen stations, most of which will built and serviced by private companies.
“Implementing this kind of first in the nation public private partnership for ADA improvements demonstrates the MTA’s firm commitment to expanding accessibility,” said MTA’s acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber in the Dec. 10 release.
For 13 stations, MTA’s Construction and Development division wants to issue so-called design-build-finance-maintain bids, tasking one contractor with all four of those jobs, including a 15-year maintenance agreement.
The privatized approach will deliver the elevators more quickly and cheaply by consolidating the activities usually distributed among different contractors, according to MTA.
The public-private-partnership includes new elevators at eight stations:
- Church Avenue B, Q
- Sheepshead Bay B, Q
- Rockaway Boulevard A
- Kings Highway F
- Woodhaven Boulevard M, R
- Steinway Street M, R
- Junius Street 3
- Mosholu Parkway 4
The project also replaces existing elevators at five stations:
- 25th Street A, B, C, D
- 34th Street Penn Station A, C, E
- Euclid Avenue A, C
- 161 Street Yankee Stadium 4
- 3rd Avenue 149th Street 2, 5
Less than 30% of MTA’s 472 subway stations are wheelchair-accessible and the current 2020-2024 capital plan aims to install elevators at 70 stations.
The agency also plans to award a $102 million deal to build elevators at 68th St-Hunter College station on the 6 and 4 trains and a separate $3 million, 15-year maintenance contract.
A package deal will go for $242.4 million, with maintenance also separated out for a different company at the price of $9.1 million, which includes 11 new elevators at six stations:
- Westchester Square 6
- Eighth Avenue N
- 181st Street A
- Woodhaven Boulevard J, Z
- Court Square G
- Queensboro Plaza N, W, 7
This award also includes replacing elevators at the Marcy Avenue and Flushing Avenue on the J and M lines, and construction is expected to take just over 2.5 years, according to MTA committee documents.
Privately-managed facilities have in the past performed worse than those run by MTA’s New York City Transit, a 2020 report by The City found, and the advocacy group TransitCenter issued a report at the time urging officials to keep better tabs on private partners.
The advocates recommended MTA make developers pay for every day an elevator is out past its legal obligation, standardizing equipment so that repairs are quicker, and for developers to install technology to immediately detect outages.
“Riders need as many elevators as they can get but if there’s a tradeoff between getting more elevators and getting well-maintained elevators then it may not be that great a bargain,” TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried told amNewYork Metro. “What we gain in cost savings we may be losing in accountability.”
NYCT currently manages 291 elevators and 56 are operated by third parties, along with 233 public escalators and 42 private moving stairs, according to MTA’s elevator and escalator dashboard.
Joe Rappaport, the executive director of the disability advocacy group Brooklyn Center for Independence, pointed to a malfunctioning escalator at Union Square that was out of action for years in the late 2000s, with its private owner slow to fix it.
“What the MTA needs to make sure is that the repairs are made quickly, no matter who’s responsible,” Rappaport said. “It makes it a lot harder when you disburse responsibility to private operators.”
He noted that the agency does not have a good enough record of keeping its own elevators in shape, adding that his organization is involved in several lawsuits against the MTA, including an unresolved 2017 case in federal court about elevator maintenance.
“We’ve had trouble holding the MTA to account, and if you have a private developer operating an elevator, yeah that saves some dough for the MTA but it does make it harder for the public to confront the MTA, because the MTA can just say, ‘that’s not our problem.’”
Transit officials have said they inspect every elevator — private or otherwise — three times a day and let operators know about any problems, but Rappaport said the agency needs to target their wallets to keep them in compliance.
“If you’re a developer and you realize that you’re going to face a hefty fine rather than a polite letter from MTA, you might actually maintain it properly,” he said.
MTA recently worked with the city expand a developer bonus known as Zoning for Accessibility, allowing real estate companies to build bigger if they also make a nearby subway station more accessible.
The first project to capitalize of those new incentives will bring elevators to the F train’s 57th Street stop, funded by a Billionaire’s Row supertall development breaking ground in 2022.
City regulations require the developer to open the lifts to straphangers before they can legally occupy the extra floor space.
MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan pointed out that some of the less reliable private elevators are older, grandfathered-in facilities that are outside the transit agency’s jurisdiction.
Officials plan to craft stricter regulations around the new design-build-finance-maintain projects so that companies must they maintain the new facilities up to the MTA’s standards in order to get paid, according to Construction and Development President Jamie Torres-Springer.
“The MTA is re-envisioning the way it partners with private partners to ensure elevators remain clean and in good working order,” Torres-Springer said in a statement. “This new approach creates a stark financial incentive: the company responsible for designing, building, and maintaining the elevators doesn’t get paid unless those elevators meet performance benchmarks spelled out in the contract, and we expect this will result in maintenance at a high standard.”