New York Daily News

The MTA’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity shell game

- BY COLIN WRIGHT AND JES­SICA MUR­RAY Wright is se­nior ad­vo­cacy as­so­ci­ate at Tran­sitCen­ter. Mur­ray is a mem­ber of the Rise and Re­sist El­e­va­tor Ac­tion Group. Business · New York City · York City F.C. · New York · Metropolitan Transportation Authority

One would think the MTA’s re­cent fed­eral fund­ing re­quest bodes well for the mo­bil­ity of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in New York City. Of a to­tal $8 bil­lion re­quest, about $2 bil­lion is os­ten­si­bly for ac­ces­si­bil­ity-re­lated projects. But a deeper look presents a trou­bling re­al­ity: In plain sight, the MTA is skirt­ing its ac­ces­si­bil­ity re­quire­ments and com­mit­ments — ones they al­ready made in the past — and mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing al­ready-com­mit­ted funds. They do it in four ways.

First, much of the fund­ing re­quest is go­ing to sta­tions the MTA promised to up­grade long ago and not the new list that former Tran­sit Au­thor­ity Chief Andy By­ford made pub­lic to great fan­fare when he promised to make 70 new sta­tions ac­ces­si­ble.

What that means is that many of By­ford’s grand am­bi­tions may not be hap­pen­ing, and the MTA is try­ing to ob­fus­cate it. Up to $500 mil­lion of the re­quested fund­ing for ac­ces­si­bil­ity is for sta­tions which the MTA com­mit­ted fund­ing to years ago. So not only is the MTA ad­mit­ting they have yet to de­liver on these prom­ises, but they’re es­sen­tially claim­ing they no longer have the fund­ing to even pro­ceed with these projects. Where did the money go? Some­how these got pushed to the back of the line, then other non-ac­ces­si­bil­ity projects were pri­or­i­tized, and then funds dried up. The MTA con­trols which projects get pri­or­i­tized, and when ac­ces­si­bil­ity projects de­lib­er­ately get pushed back, the dis­abil­ity com­mu­nity loses.

The MTA should com­plete those old ac­ces­si­bil­ity projects, but not at the ex­pense of new ones. In no un­cer­tain terms, any new fed­eral fund­ing should be fully al­lo­cated to the next 70 ac­ces­si­ble sta­tions promised in the 2020-24 Cap­i­tal Plan. That’s the only way for­ward.

The sec­ond prob­lem here is that the MTA re­quests $1.4 bil­lion for ac­ces­si­bil­ity up­grades at sta­tions to be named later. This is a game of cat-and-mouse be­tween the MTA and the com­mu­nity: The MTA doesn’t want to be pinned down to any ac­ces­si­bil­ity im­prove­ments. But they haven’t earned that trust. Again, they should spec­ify which of the next 70 sta­tions will be im­proved with these funds.

The third prob­lem in­volves timeta­bles, or the lack thereof. The MTA is un­der­tak­ing nu­mer­ous ma­jor ren­o­va­tions without mak­ing sta­tions ac­ces­si­ble, only stat­ing in vague terms that “ac­ces­si­bil­ity” will be ad­dressed in “fu­ture projects.” By law, any­time ma­jor ren­o­va­tions are made, they must in­clude ac­ces­si­bil­ity up­grades. In this case, ma­jor work to walls, plat­forms and more are be­ing un­der­taken — which means it trig­gers an Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act-re­quired up­grade — but the au­thor­ity isn’t say­ing when that cru­cial por­tion of the job will get done. This just makes a mock­ery of the ADA.

Fourth, MTA has des­ig­nated cer­tain sta­tions (for in­stance, Court St. in Brook­lyn) as in­fea­si­ble for ren­o­va­tion, which ac­cord­ing to a le­gal def­i­ni­tion means that a sta­tion is too dif­fi­cult and/or dan­ger­ous to make ac­ces­si­ble. But the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is cur­rently su­ing the MTA over this prac­tice and ad­vo­cates have been fight­ing for years to get the MTA to stop do­ing this.

For many years be­fore By­ford’s ar­rival, the MTA hid be­hind its Key Sta­tion Pro­gram — the 100 sta­tions man­dated by the ADA and state law to be made ac­ces­si­ble by 2020 — and kept ac­ces­si­bil­ity up­grades as a blip on cap­i­tal plan bud­gets, usu­ally at around 1% to 3% of five-year cap­i­tal plans.

Then came By­ford’s Fast For­ward Plan. Tran­sit ac­ces­si­bil­ity at­ten­tion sky­rock­eted — and the au­thor­ity started crow­ing about it left and right. All of a sud­den, in­stead of down­play­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity, the MTA changed course to putting ac­ces­si­bil­ity front and cen­ter. Un­for­tu­nately, this has proven to be only a com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy, a fa­cade. Just look at this fund­ing re­quest: It’s a white­wash­ing of hun­dreds of mil­lions in ac­ces­si­bil­ity funds that were di­verted else­where, un­der the guise of a new $2 bil­lion ac­ces­si­bil­ity fund­ing re­quest.

Un­less there is true ac­count­abil­ity, the MTA will con­tinue to cheer ac­ces­si­bil­ity loudly to gar­ner and feed off the pub­lic’s sup­port for fed­eral fund­ing, but then, once get­ting the funds — well, who knows what they’ll do with them. The cur­rent checks and bal­ances on the MTA cap­i­tal plan­ning and bud­get­ing process, which ac­counts for bil­lions in tax dol­lars, are just in­suf­fi­cient.

Yes, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should give the MTA money for ac­ces­si­bil­ity — lots of it! But it ought to re­move the MTA’s dis­cre­tion to di­vert fund­ing ded­i­cated to ad­vanc­ing this crit­i­cal goal.

Dis­abil­ity ad­vo­cates reg­u­larly say that a “legally bind­ing set­tle­ment” from the ADA law­suits is the only way to hold the MTA ac­count­able. Given the games the agency al­ways plays, it’s an un­der­stand­able con­clu­sion.

But MTA lead­er­ship can also fi­nally de­liver on the tran­sit ac­ces­si­bil­ity dream: It just needs to be hon­est, trans­par­ent and ac­count­able. It’s not yet, not even close.

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