As MTA Updates Astoria Stations, Residents Ask Why There Aren’t More Elevators
Jeanette Savino lives just a couple of blocks from the Broadway Station in Queens, where the N and W lines take passengers to Manhattan. But Savino, who has lived in Astoria for 50 years, can’t use either of those subways because she walks with a cane, and the station has no elevator. So she must take three buses — a trip of about an hour — to get to her doctor’s office at Mt. Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The Broadway station isn’t neglected by city transit. It just reopened in January after a seven-month, $50 million upgrade that included new stairs, an updated mezzanine and digital countdown clocks — but no accessibility for the disabled.
“They should’ve put in an elevator,” Savino said. “There are a lot of older people like me who have a hard time making it up the stairs.”
Nearly 165,000 people live in Astoria. According to census data, 70% of commuters in Astoria use public transportation to get to work.
But Astoria is considered an “ADA transit desert,” meaning it’s inaccessible for those with impaired mobility — including people in wheelchairs, the elderly, or those traveling with strollers and young children.
The MTA’s 2016 Capital Program allocated $130 million to revamp the six Astoria subway stations, but the plan would make only the Astoria Boulevard station — two stops or three-quarters of a mile west of the Broadway station — ADA-compliant.
Since then, spending on the Astoria stations has nearly tripled, but only $50 million is going toward accessibility features at Astoria Boulevard.
In a statement, an MTA spokesman said the agency is committed to making stations accessible.
“We have a rock-solid commitment to increasing accessibility as evidenced by the nearly $5 billion spent so far on making subway stations accessible, including $1.4 billion in the current capital program, by [New York City Transit] President Byford‘s establishing the system’s first chief accessibility advisor … and by the MTA board forming an accessibility working group recently,” he said via email. “Our commitment to improving accessibility over the coming years — including ensuring that no rider is further than two stops away from an accessible station — is hard and fast.”
But New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides, who represents Astoria, said the MTA had other motivations for making Astoria Boulevard compliant.
“The only reason I’ll say that there is an elevator at this particular station is its connectivity to the airport” with the M60 bus to LaGuardia, Constantinides said. “I’m beyond frustrated.”
The MTA says it chooses which stations to make accessible based on a number of factors, including community input, bus connections and proximity to major activity centers.
Sharon Kaufman, who is in her mid-60s, has lived in Astoria her whole life. Her mother is now in a wheelchair. She recalled how difficult it was to carry her children’s strollers up and down the subway stairs when they were younger.
“This should have been done a long time ago,” Kaufman said about the elevators. “But they should’ve done more than just one station.”
The Astoria upgrades were a part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Enhanced Station Initiative.”
“The future is mass transit,” Cuomo told the crowd at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn where he announced the plan in January 2016. “Now how do we get people out of their cars and into mass transit? It’s reliability first, accessibility second, and third, the comforts that we expect.”
At the time, work on city subway stations was projected to cost $2.78 billion over five years. About $740 million of that would go toward making 18 stations compliant with the ADA. Most of the budget would go toward what the city calls “station work ” — that is, painting, upgrading stairs and repairing structural deficiencies. The rest was earmarked for upgrading existing escalators and elevators, new turnstiles and fare payment systems.
Only about 25% of the city’s 472 subway stations are currently ADA-compliant.
In Astoria, the MTA has been has been shutting down stations along the N/W line for upgrades for months at a time, providing improvements while also inconveniencing commuters and taking a toll on businesses.
Before this work began, stations in Astoria hadn’t been significantly renovated since 1917.
“They basically tore down these stations to studs, so if there was a time to install elevators, it’s probably going to be cheapest to do it when the stations are down to nothing,” Constantinides said. “How they’re able to tear a station down to studs and not comply with the ADA is bewildering to me.”
The ADA, which was passed by Congress in 1990, is overseen by three agencies: the Justice Department, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission. But it’s a “complaints-driven law,” meaning the federal government doesn’t actively look for violations. Instead, the agencies wait for individuals or groups to file a complaint or a lawsuit if they believe there’s a violation.
“Unless somebody sues, they just do it and get away with it,” said Jessica Murray, a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center studying accessibility in New York City and a member of the advocacy group, Elevators Are for Everyone.
Last May, Disability Rights Advocates, a national non-profit legal center, sued the MTA for what it called its “prevalent, discriminatory practice of renovating New York City subway stations without installing elevators or other stair-free routes in blatant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “
The suit was filed on behalf of three individual plaintiffs and a coalition of disability groups, including the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.
“The Enhanced Station Initiative was a classic example of old think under the guise of forward approaches to renovation,” said Joseph Rappaport, the center’s executive director.
“They wanted it to be a 21st Century station, forgetting in the 21st Century we have the Americans with Disabilities Act that passed 29 years ago.”
In March, a federal judge in a separate case ruled that when MTA subway station renovations involve replacing stairs, the agency must install elevators. At least four of the upgraded Astoria stations included stair replacements.
The hesitance of New York elected officials to enhance accessibility isn’t new.
In the mid-1980s, the MTA board and Mayor Ed Koch blocked an agreement to put elevators in 40 subway stations. He proposed instead a paratransit system, which is still in operation today. The logic then was that providing specially equipped vehicles that provide door-to-door service with a voucher system would serve more people, especially in neighborhoods that don’t have subway service.
But that system has its own issues, the main one being there’s almost no on-demand service, meaning most users need to schedule rides at least a day in advance. And while the MTA says 100% of its bus fleet is accessible, buses provide limited options for travel between boroughs.
“I don’t think anyone buys the notion that the buses and the horrendous Access-A-Ride system in any way are comparable to a fully accessible subway system,” Rappaport said.
Because the MTA is overseen by Gov. Cuomo, Councilman Constantinides says the city’s power is limited, but he points to residents’ rallies in the neighborhood.
“That activism has been sort of amazing, and it should be informing our decisions,” he said.
The councilman did have one message for the governor: “If we’re committed to sustainability, if we’re committed to making sure families can get around, putting in an elevator in our community would be well worth the cost.”