New York Daily News
The MTA’s accessibility shell game
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.