Too many trains are leaving the station without people with disabilities aboard. Nationwide, 28 percent of the country’s rail transit stations are not accessible, and the problem is even more acute when it comes to century-plus-old subway systems in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. In New York City, for instance, nearly three-quarters of the subway network’s 472 stations are inaccessible, according to the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
But more people will get a ticket to ride under the recently signed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, thanks in part to a $1.75 billion federal All Stations Accessibility Program. The program will provide competitive grants to state and local authorities for upgrading old stations over five years. This will come on top of nearly $107 billion being earmarked under the infrastructure bill for transportation improvements that can also be used to make stations more accessible, reports Disability Scoop.
For its part, Amtrak is already spending $1.2 billion to bring into compliance the 312 stations in its network that remain in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to a report by the Railroad Passenger Corporation’s Office of the Inspector General. Even more money could be earmarked for this work through the $66 billion that Amtrak will be receiving under the infrastructure program, notes The New York Times.
All this additional funding will help speed existing accessibility programs that were moving at a glacial pace. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both legs in combat in Iraq in 2004, recalls attending a ceremony several years ago to kick off a program to make Chicago’s stations accessible, only to learn that the work would take 25 years. “This is great, but you do realize it’s been 25 years since the passage of the ADA and that this will take another 25 years,” Duckworth told the authority’s leaders, according to a Washington Post article. “You’re talking about a half-century that people with disabilities have been waiting.”
Duckworth pushed hard to include the $1.75 billion accessibility funding in the infrastructure bill, and also secured language in the bill requiring Amtrak to appoint a person with disabilities to its board.
The ADA’s Big Loophole
While the ADA requires that transportation be accessible to all, a big loophole prevents many urban dwellers from using older subways. That’s because while all new stations must be accessible, a provision in the law allows operators only to upgrade “key stations” among those built before 1990. It costs anywhere between $10 million and $65 million to install an elevator at a station, and making all of New York’s stations ADA-compliant would cost $35 billion over 25 to 30 years, Quemuel Arroyo, the MTA’s chief accessibility officer, told Disability Scoop.
Even before the injection of new infrastructure funding, the MTA had already earmarked $5.2 billion over the next five years for new elevators, as well as features designed to help the blind and those with learning disabilities.
Other cities with older systems also have plans to improve accessibility. In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) will spend some of the $600 million it will be receiving in federal infrastructure funds for ADA improvements. This comes on top of $355 million already set aside under its 12-year capital spending plan to make the city’s two subway and elevated lines ADA-compliant. But making all public transportation fully accessible in Philadelphia, including commuter rail, heavy rail, and the trolley system, would cost $2.4 billion, SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said.
A 2018 report estimated it would cost $2.1 billion to make Chicago’s 42 stations ADA-compliant.
Improving accessibility does not just benefit people with disabilities, proponents note; it improves the service for everyone—for example, a parent traveling with a child in a stroller, Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America, told Disability Scoop. “A lot of older adults don’t want to do stairs. An elevator suddenly allows them to use the system. We’ve got an aging society.”