Nearly 10% of Metropolitan Transportation Authority elevators are out of service at any given time, according to a new report from the City Council.
The report, from the Council’s Policy Task Force, found that on average, 34 of the MTA’s 353 subway elevators — imperative infrastructure for people with disabilities to access mass transit — are out of service at any given time, according to an analysis of the MTA’s elevator performance dashboard. That totals 9.6% of all the MTA’s elevators — which are already only present at about a quarter of stations, leaving most of the system inaccessible as is.
Escalators fare even worse: 33 out of 297 escalators, or 11.1%, of them systemwide are out of service on average at a given time.
“Subway riders deserve to have their commutes be as seamless as possible,” said Council Majority Leader Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who co-authored the report with Bronx lawmaker Pierina Sanchez. “With such few stations in the subway system equipped with elevators and escalators, we must focus on ensuring they are performing well and that riders have sufficient notice of outages.”
The report notes that the MTA’s own statistics show higher reliability for its elevators and escalators, at 94.9% and 90.1% respectively, a discrepancy the lawmakers chalk up to differing methodology.
The lawmakers also found significant variances in reliability between elevators operated by the MTA and those maintained by third-party contractors. Maintenance is contracted out when the elevators are located in spots not owned by the MTA; partners include real estate developers who reach deals with the MTA to install subway elevators at their properties in exchange for zoning easements, under the Zoning for Accessibility program, as well as other transit agencies like the Port Authority.
When those privately-maintained elevators go out of service, the average outage length is triple that of an MTA-maintained elevator, the report found. MTA elevators and escalators are out for an average of 1.6 days while private elevators are out for about 4.4 days.
84% of elevators in the subway system are maintained by the MTA, with the remaining 16% under private jurisdiction. Information on who owns the private elevators is “very hard to find,” the authors note.
The report also faults the MTA for failing to list planned outages in advance on the elevator dashboard, leading elderly or disabled straphangers, and those with strollers, luggage, or whatnot, in the dust when they show up at their station only to find the lift out of service. Reporting an outage requires either using a “clunky” online portal or dealing with long hold times on the phone.
Advocates say that the consequences of these shortfalls are dire for those with disabilities. Jean Ryan, a wheelchair user and president of Disabled In Action of Metropolitan NY, said that elevator outages are akin to disabled riders being “trapped” in or out of the system. Her group and others are currently suing the MTA in a bid to force better maintenance practices.
“Despite the MTA saying how wonderful the elevators are regarding their outage rate, we disagree,” Ryan said in an email. “All it takes is one elevator to be out on our commute and we are either trapped underground at our destination or trapped on the sidewalk. In either case, we cannot reach our destination.”
“Usually 2 elevators are necessary to get from the platform to the sidewalk, so any outage affects us very adversely,” she continued. “The MTA should pay elevator fixers more money to keep them in the fold, and they should not allow any leeway in repairs to private elevators by the private companies. A first-class system requires a first-class response, not hedging and diverting.”
Powers and Sanchez say the MTA should take a stronger stance in terms of accountability for elevator contractors, putting the heat on them to maintain their equipment, and should publicly list the operators of its private lifts. The agency should also embark on better communication of outages in stations and online, and should make reporting an outage easier, the pair say.
Reached for comment, an MTA spokesperson argued the agency is diligent in holding its third-party contractors accountable when they fall short.
“We appreciate the recognition given to the MTA’s elevator and escalator maintenance teams, which work diligently to keep facilities working for riders,” said MTA spokesperson Eugene Resnick. “Where issues have arisen with outside developers who have the responsibility to maintain and repair facilities, the MTA has been, and continues to be, committed to ensuring third parties live up to their contractual agreements.”
In June, the MTA settled a pair of lawsuits brought by disability advocates wherein they agreed to make 95% of subway stations accessible by 2055. The agency has touted over $5 billion in its current 2020-24 capital plan allotted to accessibility projects at dozens of stations across the city.
Last week, the MTA announced it intends to award contracts for 29 new elevators at 15 stations in all five boroughs this year. An MTA spokesperson said all of those will be maintained by private operators and held to “strict” quality-control measures.