NYC subway station must be wheelchair accessible regardless of cost: Federal judge

by Kim Boateng Posted on March 8th, 2019

A judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled Tuesday that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority must make the subway station wheelchair accessible, regardless of cost.

The subway station in question, Middletown Road Station Subway in the Bronx, can only be accessed through a stairway. Although the station was renovated from 2013 to 2014, no elevators were added to the station, so it was still inaccessible for people with certain disabilities, especially wheelchair users.

The plaintiffs brought suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and both plaintiffs and defendants sought summary judgement. The plaintiffs claimed that the renovations “affect the usability of the facility,” triggering a provision of the ADA that requires the station to be made accessible no matter the cost. The defendants argued that the renovations instead “affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function,” triggering a different provision of the ADA that does not require the public space to be accessible “if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.”

In granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, Judge Edgardo Ramos found that the renovations affected the subway station’s usability, looking at prior case law. Therefore, the station should be accessible, regardless of cost.

Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal aid group, hailed the decision as a “landmark civil rights ruling.” According to the organization, “The New York City subway system is the least accessible major transportation system in the country” and less than a fourth of the subway stops have elevators. Jean Ryan, the president of Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York, which was one of the plaintiffs, said, “Without accessible stations in a neighborhood, thousands of people are excluded from the basic activities of daily life.”

The ruling casts a spotlight on MTA’s practice of not installing elevators when it makes renovations to subway stations. The New York City subway system is the least accessible major transportation system in the country. Less than 25% of stations have elevators, making entire neighborhoods inaccessible to residents and visitors to the city who cannot climb stairs.

The MTA renovated the Middletown Road subway station in the Bronx during a seven-month period between October 2013 and May 2014. During the renovations, the MTA completely replaced the staircases, renovated the mezzanine and platform floors, reconstructed platform edges, replaced concrete platforms, and installed new lighting. However, they never considered building elevators that would make the station accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Michelle Caiola, Managing Director at Disability Rights Advocates, said, “This ruling highlights why the New York City subway system remains overwhelmingly inaccessible to people who cannot use stairs. If MTA had been complying with the ADA over the past twenty-five years by installing elevators when it performs station renovations, we would be closer to full accessibility today. Clearly, MTA must change its practices related to accessibility as soon as possible.”

“This is a major victory for all New Yorkers who need elevators to access the subway, but especially for those in the Bronx where there are even fewer fully accessible stations,” said Brett Eisenberg, Executive Director of Bronx Independent Living Services. “The MTA cannot continue to place the needs of people with disabilities last when planning improvements to the subway system.”

“The subway can be the quickest and easiest way to get around the city, but only if you can go up and down stairs,” said Jean Ryan, President of Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York. “Without accessible stations in a neighborhood, thousands of people are excluded from the basic activities of daily life.”

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Kim Boateng

Kim Boateng

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