MTA gets heat over broken elevators, lack of accessibility at subway stations

As the MTA nears completion of a decades-old goal for subway accessibility, the agency is facing pressure to outline its next steps.

Advocates and elected officials rallied outside the agency’s lower Manhattan headquarters Thursday, pressing the MTA to make more of its stations accessible and to improve upkeep of its current network of elevators.

“Nearly 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the MTA operates the least accessible subway system in the country,” said Chris Pangilinan, a program director at TransitCenter, which has launched a new campaign and report on the issue. “Hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers are denied everyday access to the opportunities that are provided here in the city.”

With a world of problems plaguing the MTA subway system, advocates don’t want the agency to lose sight of what they consider to be an important issue — and one that’s especially timely at the moment.

In 1994, the MTA outlined a list of 100 “key” stations it would make compliant with ADA standards by 2020, the result of a settlement from a lawsuit over the system’s lack of wheelchair access. Money from the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan will cover the costs to retrofit the few lingering stations from the 100-station list to meet ADA standards.

“We recognize this is an issue of critical importance and increasing accessibility is a priority for the MTA,” said Tarek Shams, an MTA spokesman, in a statement. “We’re spending more than $1 billion in our current capital plan to increase the number of ADA-compliant subway stations and replace existing elevators and escalators, and our entire bus fleet is ADA-compliant.”

In total, there are 117 ADA-accessible stations, according to the MTA. But that accounts for about 25 percent of the agency’s 472 stations overall. While calling accessibility a “priority,” the MTA has expressed no clear vision for improving access beyond its initial 100-station target, advocates said.

Even the stations that are accessible are beset by out-of-service elevators, according to TransitCenter’s report. A May audit from City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, which sampled 65 elevators and escalators in the subway system, charged the MTA with failing to properly service its machines to prevent outages or keep coherent records of work done on the equipment.

Wheelchair uses at Thursday’s rally described the indignities of navigating an unfriendly system. During his two-and-a-half years living in the city, Pangilinan, a wheelchair user, said he’s either been stuck underground, or canceled or altered trips on 230 occasions because of broken subway elevators. Others said they’ve had to crawl up subway stairs as strangers assisted in carrying their wheelchairs because of the issue.

“I’ve had to learn how to live in a wheelchair,” said Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, 41, of the Upper West Side. “I’ve had to re-learn how to go get groceries, make a cup of coffee, how to take care of my kids … the biggest one that’s been shocking to me is the subway and the lack of accessibility there.”

On June 29, MTA chairman Joe Lhota said he’d take 60 days to draft and present a plan on modernizing a subway system suffering a soaring number of delays and a series of high-profile service failures of late.

Advocates hope that plan will include accessibility improvements. TransitCenter’s report calls for the agency to “consider a faster pace and a more adaptable approach” to ultimately getting to a completely accessible subway system.

“Obviously, getting trains to work and avoiding track fires and derailments is extremely important as well — there’s no reason that this has to be subsumed by that topic also,” Pangilinan said.

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