The MTA is moving forward with more than $1 billion worth of accessibility upgrades. It's the latest step in the agency’s recent commitment to build more elevators and ramps.
The agency’s board is scheduled to vote this week on a slate of contracts for the improvements, which will add elevators or replace old ones at 14 subway stations and nine Long Island Rail Road stations.
One of the proposed contracts — valued at $965 million — covers the installation of 21 new elevators at eight stations across the city, as well as 14 elevator replacements at five other stations.
Stations where officials plan to add new elevators include Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens and Rockaway Boulevard in Queens. The elevator replacements in the contract include those to both the underground and elevated platforms at 161st Street-Yankee Stadium, as well as ones that connect to subway platforms at Penn Station.
At Brooklyn’s busy Borough Hall station, MTA officials also seek approval for a separate $106 million contract to add three new elevators, work to reduce the gap between platforms and train cars, and other infrastructure improvements. The construction will make the entire station compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to transit officials.
Another $114 million contract aims to make nine LIRR stations compliant with the ADA.
The work is part of the MTA’s current capital plan, now pegged at $56 billion with more than $5 billion dedicated to making stations accessible with elevators and ramps.
Just over a quarter of the city’s 472 subway stations are accessible to riders with disabilities. But the MTA earlier this year settled lawsuits filed by disability rights advocates and agreed to make 95% of the system's stations accessible by 2055.
Joe Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, was one of several plaintiffs who sued the MTA as part of those lawsuits. He was carefully optimistic about the incoming contracts.
“Our main goal is that these elevators go in on time, that the dam elevators work once they’re in place, and we see many similar contracts over and over again,” Rappaport said. “Now they got religion, and that sometimes happens when you’re sued.”
The MTA has completed at least 15 subway accessibility projects since 2020 despite a widespread pause on transit construction during the first year of the pandemic.
But accessibility advocates said they still worry the agency isn’t being clear about the details in the incoming contracts, particularly why the planned work is so expensive.
“It’s good to see progress, but I continue to be disappointed by the lack of transparency into these construction costs,” said Jessica Murray, chair of the advisory committee on transit accessibility to the MTA. “Given that the cost of these improvements now factor into the MTA’s recent ADA settlement, more transparency is needed to make sure that the MTA is meeting their obligations for spending a certain amount of the capital budget on accessibility improvements.”
It remains unclear how much elevator replacements will cost compared to new elevators in stations.
"Accessibility is one of MTA’s top priorities, which is reflected in the unprecedented commitment of more than $5 billion in our 2020-2024 capital plan,” MTA spokesperson David Steckel said.
The future of the MTA’s finances is also uncertain.
The agency is predicting a $2.5 billion operating deficit in 2025, although the state comptroller estimates it could be much more than that due to dwindling subway ridership since the pandemic.
Gov. Kathy Hochul and MTA Chairman Janno Lieber have already hinted they’ll be asking the state legislature to approve some new taxes to fund the MTA’s daily operations. Hochul said she’d announce her plans at her "State of the State" speech in January.
Money for more elevators would come out of the capital budget, which is heavily reliant on congestion pricing, a plan to toll drivers that enter Manhattan below 60th Street. That program still faces a final federal review.
The new tolls are required by state law to generate $1 billion a year, which would be used to sell bonds worth $15 billion, enough to cover about 30% of the MTA’s current capital plan.
Lieber said earlier this year that the agency will have to hold some construction projects back if congestion pricing is not approved. But given the settlements with disability advocates, the MTA is legally bound to keep adding elevators.