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MTA could make many more stations accessible, study finds

February 20, 2020 Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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THE CITYMany more subway stations could be made accessible, according to an MTA-commissioned study on bringing the system in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The first part of the $17.6 million review, obtained by THE CITY, also found elevators could be added to four above-ground stations in Queens that underwent extensive renovations from 2017 to 2019 — but whose improvements did not include lifts.

“There is no question that we can have an inclusive subway system,” said Michelle Caiola, managing director of litigation at Disability Rights Advocates. “Now the MTA must do the work.”

In February 2018, the MTA hired Stantec, a Canadian engineering consulting firm, to study the feasibility and cost of making hundreds of non-accessible subway and Staten Island Railway stations in sync with a 30-year-old federal law requiring equal access for all.

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Only 124 of the system’s 493 stations are accessible, including nine subway platforms in just one direction.

Possible but Pricey

The consultants found that almost all of the first 100 stations they surveyed could be retrofitted with elevators — even though costly utility relocations or property purchases might be necessary in some cases.

None of the potential upgrades cited in the study come with a price tag attached. An MTA spokesperson said costs would depend on bids for elevator work, scheduling and ongoing efforts to cut expenses by reducing customization of designs.

The initial results of the Stantec study were released after the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates filed a records request in October 2018. The findings from the next 100 stations are set to be released Friday, with the rest due by the end of March.

“We should never have had to fight this hard for this long for New Yorkers to get information that we paid for,” Caiola said.

In November, THE CITY reported that the initial $10 million budget for the study had increased to $16.9 million. It is now $17.58 million, according to MTA documents.

Ongoing elevator installation at the Astoria Boulevard stop in Queens. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

Consultants studied the stations’ layouts as well as their surrounding areas, using Department of City Planning data to factor in the number of residents over the age of 70 near each stop.

“You see the older people around here who would like to get on the train and they can’t, so they take the bus,” said Maria Fernandez, 32, who helped her sister carry a stroller with a 6-month-old baby up the stairs to the newly renovated 39th Avenue stop in Astoria, Queens, on the N and W lines.

As part of its proposed $51.5 billion five-year Capital Program, the MTA has committed to spending $5.2 billion to make 66 more stations accessible, with a goal that riders will not be more than two stops away from stations that meet ADA standards.

Four other stations that will get elevators were added to the MTA’s current 2015-2019 capital plan.

“These surveys show the exhaustive study and careful consideration that are going into assessing stations for accessibility upgrades, as we work diligently to invest in our system,” said Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson.

Next Stop…

The study was used to select which stations will next be made fully ADA compliant as part of the MTA’s proposed capital plan.

Among those is the Broadway stop along the N and W lines in Astoria, which was among 19 stations renovated as part of the so-called Enhanced Station Initiative launched in early 2016.

The pilot program — which originally would have renovated 32 stations with a single firm handling design and construction — was criticized by advocates as a “missed opportunity” for not including elevators.

An MTA spokesperson said the work at the Broadway stop was designed to allow for easier elevator installation at a later date.

One option, according to the study, is installing elevators at one end of the station’s two platforms so riders could go from the street to the trains, with a stop in-between at the mezzanine level. New turnstiles would be required.

A few stops away from Broadway on the N and W line, four elevators are being added to the Astoria Boulevard station. It will be the first of the Astoria line’s seven stations to become fully accessible under the ADA.

“You have to have all this strategy about how to get somewhere if you have a stroller or if you have a disability,” said Kasia Zalwska, 37, who was at the 39th Avenue stop with her 21-month-old child. “It’s either that or you have a car or take a taxi.”

Obstacles Remain

The study cites hurdles to accessibility at some stations, including the need to acquire property or relocate utilities.

“No one expects 360 subway stations to sprout elevators overnight — accessibility will come over time and we are demanding a legally binding agreement to ensure that it does,” Caiola said. “But their continued flagrant disregard for the law will only make it more expensive.”

Some stations and platforms are not good fits at all for elevators, the Stantec study found.

At Union Square, the study notes, there is “no fully accessible solution at this time” for the southbound platform on the 4, 5 and 6 lines because of its “extreme curvature.”

ADA accessibility at the Court Street station on the R line in Downtown Brooklyn was “deemed infeasible” in the study, because of impact to the ceiling that would require “a large number of conduits” to be rerouted.

Tarek said the MTA is “fully committed to system-wide accessibility.”

But a rider who moves through the transit system in her motorized wheelchair said she will need more convincing.

“Let’s be honest, we’re talking big bucks here,” said Edith Prentiss, an advocate for people with disabilities. “So I’m not going to hold my breath.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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