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Disability Advocates Skeptical of Promises in New MTA Spending Plan


Train departing at Union Square Station. ©Mia Hariz.

One morning this summer, about a month into Jessica De La Rosa’s new job as System Advocate at the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID), the elevators at the Union Square station stopped working. That didn’t mean much to most commuters, but De La Rosa is wheelchair-bound, and that one malfunction meant she had to alter her entire route. She rolled from her apartment on 29th Street up to Harold Square, adding 30 minutes to her commute, and ended up being late to work. It took a week before the elevator was fixed. In New York City, De La Rosa says, the MTA fails the disability community constantly.

De La Rosa is one of the over two million New Yorkers living with a disability, and one of the 39% of those individuals who commute to work by train daily. But New York City has one of the least accessible subway systems in the world. The MTA, which currently faces three lawsuits by disability rights groups regarding accessibility, released a report last month outlining a $51.5 billion plan to improve the transit system, including the installation of ramps and elevators in 70 stations. Though the MTA touts this as a triumph for the disability community, advocates and disability rights organizations are skeptical that the MTA will follow through, and plan to push forward on their lawsuits until a permanent settlement is reached.

“The MTA has had a history of falling behind on work, or under delivering on promises, and the disability rights organizations that are suing the MTA frankly don’t have a lot of trust that the MTA will deliver,” said Colin Wright, Senior Advocacy Associate at TransitCenter. “What they’re looking for is an enduring legal commitment that will last beyond any capital plan and any leadership change at the MTA.”

The MTA’s proposed five-year capital plan allots $5.2 billion to making 66 stations accessible by 2024. These stations, in addition to four stations expected to be made accessible under the existing capital plan, will bring the total number of accessible stations in New York City to 184. This will still only be about a third of the city’s 472 stations, but it will be the busiest third, which serves over 60% of NYC riders.

“Five years ago, a proposal to install elevators and ramps at 70 new stations was unimaginable,” said Joseph Rappaport, Executive Director of BCID. “But, at the same time, what is imaginable is the MTA not keeping its commitment.”

BCID is one of the disability rights organizations currently suing the MTA. The lawsuits allege that the MTA’s failure to install and maintain elevators at all NYC stations is a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The MTA has yet to reach an agreement with the plaintiffs on any of the suits.

The MTA has not always managed to fulfill the promises of its capital plans. The 2015–2019 capital plan proposed $32 billion to improve New York City transit, about $19 billion less than the current plan. But, according to the MTA, only about $11.3 billion has been delivered to the agency, and as year’s end approaches, many of the scheduled renovations are far from complete. The plan originally included the installation of 32 new accessible stations, but the number was reduced to 19 due to insufficient funds. A 2018 report states that the 2005–2009 capital program was only 83% complete, nine years after its end date. Finally, a 2017 audit revealed that the MTA neglected maintenance on nearly 80% of the sampled escalators and elevators, and that one third of the scheduled maintenance was performed late.

Disability rights advocates, in short, have long-standing trust issues with the MTA, and this new proposal makes no exception. They continue to suspend excitement until a legal commitment is made.

“I know they’ll just make excuse after excuse, and they’ll weasel their way out of it,” De La Rosa said. “They absolutely need to be held to their word, and they need a legally binding agreement. I’m not going on good faith.”

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