At the close of Wednesday’s MTA board meeting, one board member offered a suggestion for addressing the system’s abysmal state of access for the disabled. “We’ve had visitation after visitation in the past year from the disabled and those that want access,” said Charles Moerdler. “May I respectfully recommend that there be a separate working group on paratransit and accessibility, not just within the subway system but through the system as a whole.”
“Understood,” MTA chair Joseph Lhota said, before calling the meeting into an executive session. He glanced at his phone, then, seemingly unaware that his microphone was still turned on, muttered, “Like I don’t have enough fucking problems.”
The MTA did not respond to a question about which of Lhota’s fucking problems he does plan on addressing. (An authority spokesperson told the Post yesterday that when asked about the remark, Lhota shrugged and said, “That sounds like me.”) But according to disabled riders and their supporters, that list of priorities likely won’t extend to the needs of mobility-impaired New Yorkers.
“I didn’t actually hear the comment, but it’s not surprising,” Emily Seelenfreund, a law fellow with the legal center Disability Rights Advocates, told the Voice. “It’s emblematic of the current culture in the MTA, which for too long has refused to make access for all New Yorkers, including New Yorkers with disabilities, a priority.”
Earlier this year, Disability Rights Advocates brought two class-action lawsuits against the MTA, alleging that more than 75 percent of the city’s subway stations do not have working elevators — a “flagrant violation” of the both the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and the city’s human rights law, the suit charges. And even within the 112 stations that are considered wheelchair accessible, chronic elevator outages are the norm, Seelenfreud says, as a result of MTA neglect. Indeed, an audit released by the city comptroller’s office in May of this year found that an estimated 80 percent of subway escalators and elevators don’t get the maintenance they need.
In response to the lawsuits, a spokesperson with the authority told the New York Times that the MTA will spend an additional $334 million to replace existing elevators and escalators. To bring the entire system in line with federal law, the authority estimates, could cost around $10 billion.
While lawsuits, public audits, and advocacy campaigns have brought increased awareness to the subway’s inaccessibility, the issue is far from new. In 1994, the city agreed to retrofit 100 “key” stations for ADA compliance by 2020. But with the MTA on track to meet that deadline, some advocates worry that the beleaguered agency will consider the problem solved.
“We haven’t seen any plan for increased accessibility beyond the year 2020,” said Chris Pangilinan, program director for the TransitCenter. “They’re expecting us to be happy with a quarter of the stations becoming accessible, while cities like Chicago, Toronto, and Boston are all striving for 100 percent accessibility — it’s appalling.”
Pangilinan added, “I think the whole community — not just the disabled, but parents with strollers, injured veterans, people who break their leg, and everyone — would love to hear how they’re going to get to full access.”
In the meantime, disabled riders must find other means of navigating the subway system. Dustin Jones, a wheelchair-bound amputee and member of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, says that he often has no choice but to call on others for help. This past Tuesday, he says, he took a 4 train from Harlem-125th Street to Grand Central, only to find that the nearby elevator was out of order. He called 911, he says, and firefighters ended up carrying him out of the station.
“The MTA pays lip service, then behind closed doors they don’t give a crap about what we’re saying,” Jones says. “[Lhota] thinks he’s got enough fucking problems, but he’s not the one getting stuck in a damn subway station.”
UPDATE: After this story went to press, MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek responded to Voice requests for comment with a statement: “Improving accessibility is a priority for the MTA and to suggest otherwise is absolutely wrong.”