A U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday ruled that the MTA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to install elevators during a 2013 renovation of a Bronx subway station.
In 2016, Bronx Independent Living Services sued the agency for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by its refusal to make the elevated subway station at Middletown Road in the Bronx wheelchair accessible. The renovation of the station, which included replacing floors, walls, ceilings, and stairs leading to the street and platform, cost more than $27 million.
“The MTA is now on notice that whenever it renovates a subway station throughout its system so as to affect the station’s usability, the MTA is obligated to install an elevator, regardless of the cost, unless it is technically infeasible,” said Geoffrey Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a press release. His office intervened in the case in March 2018.
The MTA had argued that the scope of the work did not justify undertaking a renovation that would have disproportionately added to the cost of the project.
However, in a partial summary judgement for the plaintiffs, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos found that the work did in fact trigger higher requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The elevated station at Middletown Road, which was one of nine along the 6 train route targeted for renovation, is only accessible by two stairways, one from the street and another from the mezzanine.
In response to the ruling, MTA Chief External Affairs Officer Max Young said in a statement, “The MTA is steadfastly committed to improving access throughout the subway, with a hard and fast goal of making 50 additional stations accessible over five years. We’re not wavering from that commitment."
The MTA has also argued that the installation of elevators at the Bronx station was technically infeasible, something which the court has yet to weigh in on.
Over the years, the MTA has undertaken many station renovations that have not included elevators. In January, accessibility advocates and community members criticized the agency for failing to install elevators during renovation work on several elevated N/W stations in Astoria. Of the five stations that were set to undergo major improvements, only one, at Astoria Boulevard, was to have elevators installed.
Compared to other cities like Chicago and Boston, New York’s subway system has a poor track record on accessibility improvements. The MTA claims that 24 percent of its subway stations are wheelchair accessible, but a recent study by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office suggests that the actual percentage of stations that are fully accessible in both directions and for transfers between trains is "substantially lower."
Colin Wright, a senior advocacy associate at Transit Center, an organization that works on improving public transportation across U.S. cities, said that the MTA has been treating the disabled as “second-class citizens.”
“With today’s ruling, the agency is on notice that it can’t do that anymore,” he said.
The MTA is planning to upgrade at least 50 stations in the next five years, and under MTA President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward initiative, within five years straphangers would be never be more than two stops from an accessible subway station.
But Byford's plan is contingent on funding, which has yet to be secured. The authority currently has an operating budget of $17 billion and has said it is looking at a nearly $1 billion budget deficit by 2021.
“Ultimately, it’s going to take resources,” Wright said. “It’s up to Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to comply with this court ruling.”