Last month, the MTA re-opened the 39th Avenue station in Astoria after a nearly seven-month closure that inconvenienced residents and hurt businesses. Touted as part of its modernization plan along several N/W stations in the neighborhood, the upgrades at the newly dubbed 39th Avenue-Dutch Kills station included new staircases, rehabbed mezzanines and platforms, security cameras, digital signage and specially commissioned glass panel artwork.
But for accessibility advocates and many members of the community, the project failed to include one critically-needed improvement: elevator access.
“Any time the MTA is spending time and money on renovations, they need to make it accessible for everybody,” said Colin Wright, a senior advocacy associate at Transit Center, an organization that works on improving public transportation across U.S. cities.
Another Astoria station that underwent renovations but did not include an elevator, the 30th Avenue station, was one of 50 stations that Transit Center urged the MTA to prioritize for elevator access.
Among the factors the organization considered was the proximity of a hospital, Mount Sinai Queens, and the number of Access-a-Ride trips — information that would have also been available to the MTA during its planning phase.
Late last month, a mother who was carrying her baby was found dead in the 7th Avenue B/D/E station after apparently falling down a flight of stairs.
While the cause of death has not been determined, accessibility advocates have used the incident to highlight the fact that about 75% of the MTA’s 472 subway stations do not have elevators.
“Astoria is a particularly sore spot,” Wright said, adding that the community was forced to suffer through months-long station closures for a station that is still not accessible.
Of the five stations targeted for major renovations in Astoria, only one, at Astoria Boulevard, will be getting elevators. Work on that project, which is set to begin in March and last until December, calls for the installation of four elevators. The 30th Avenue and 36th Avenue stations reopened last June after a nine-month closure.
The renovations in Astoria were originally rolled out under a program created by the MTA and Governor Cuomo called the Enhanced Station Initiative. The program was heavily criticized for focusing on what many viewed as cosmetic changes. Last year, it was announced that the Enhanced Station Initiative, which was given a nearly $1 billion budget, eventually ran out of money. Only 19 of the 32 targeted stations were completed.
The need for elevators in a prominent Queens community home to young families as well as disabled and elderly residents has been a longstanding issue. Back in 2017, Astoria residents and accessibility advocates staged a rally calling on the MTA and state to reconsider its plan.
At the time, protesters were told that it was too late and that contracts for the renovation work had already been finalized, said Christine Yearwood, the founder of a group called Up-Stand, which fights for greater accessibility across the city’s transit system, including buses.
It's unclear exactly how much the MTA spent on upgrades at the 39th Avenue station. The MTA did not respond to a request for comment, but a contract awarded for the renovations in 2017 allocated $150 million for work at 30th Avenue, 36th Avenue, Broadway and 39th Avenue.
The agency was scheduled have a public meeting this afternoon to discuss accessibility issues.
At meetings with Astoria residents, the agency has said the age of certain stations prohibited the addition of elevators.
But Wright argued that cities like Chicago and Boston with comparably old transit infrastructure have made far greater strides in accessibility. According to the Active Transportation Alliance, 70 percent of the Chicago Transit Authority’s rail stations are accessible.
Yearwood, who has the support of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association, said she got interested in transit advocacy after having her first child in 2014 and noticing the logistical and physical hurdles for parents and caregivers who take the subway.
The N/W stations in Astoria are above ground and require going up two flights of stairs.
“It’s physically taxing,” she said. Last year, she gave birth to another child and now often finds herself lugging a stroller in addition to carrying her baby, all the while helping her four-year-old navigate steps.
“You can’t always be holding a baby in one hand and physically lifting the other [child],” she said.
In many ways, she said the push to increase accessibility is about giving everyone, including the elderly and the disabled, a chance to experience all that the city has to offer. She has lived in the New York for 12 years, 10 of those in Astoria.
“I don’t own a car, but I love to get around the city,” she said. “We frequently take the train and go places every weekend and I go on the subway every week. But I don’t know many people who do it to the extent that I do.”
UPDATE: The MTA issued the following statement in response:
We thank those who are advocating on behalf of accessibility, which is a top priority of the agency. It is vital that we fund our capital plan, through congestion pricing and other mechanisms, in order to achieve our goal of having no rider further away than two stops away from an accessible station.
Also, an original version of this story misstated the Astoria station that Transit Center identified as one of the 50 that should be prioritized for accessibility. It also misstated the name of Up-Stand, the transit advocacy group founded by Christine Yearwood.