A new federal, bicameral bill would offer $10 billion to ensure transit and passenger rail stations are accessible to people with disabilities.
The All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP) Act of 2021 from Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bob Casey, D-Pa., would create a 10-year federal grant program to help transit agencies upgrade stations to either meet or exceed accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
Companion legislation was introduced in the House by Reps. Jesús "Chuy" García, D-Ill., and Marie Newman, D-Ill.
Duckworth said in a statement "we’ve come a long way since the ink dried on the ADA more than 30 years ago, but we still have a long way to go to make this country truly accessible, including making sure that every American can use our nation’s public transportation systems," also noting she secured support for the legislation from Nuria Fernandez, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
According to data from the FTA, nearly 20% of the nation’s transit stations were not ADA accessible in 2019, the most recent year data was available.
A 2018 report from the New York City comptroller’s officer found that 62 of the 122 city neighborhoods serviced by the subway lacked accessible stations, meaning 200,000 disabled New Yorkers lived in neighborhoods without an accessible station. FTA data shows that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority had 80 non-ADA accessible systems out of 155 total in 2019, while the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) had 42 non-accessible stations out of 145 total.
In 2019, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) pledged to spend $5.2 billion to make 70 subway stations ADA-compliant, including installing new elevators and ramps at up to 66 stations. In April, MTA proposed a zoning change that would incentivize private developers to incorporate public station accessibility projects into new buildings or to build improvements at nearby stations themselves, which MTA said would accelerate the accessibility upgrades.
CTA announced in 2016 that it would make all of its stations accessible, but said the overhaul would take 20 years.
Smaller systems may struggle to gather the funding it takes to retrofit stations built before the ADA was passed. Under the ADA, transportation facilities built after January 25, 1992, must be readily accessible and useable by people with disabilities. If an agency alters a facility built before that date, those altered portions must also be readily accessible and useable. That can include elevators, curb ramps, level boarding, ramps or lifts in buses and accessible ticketing equipment.
"It comes down to a matter of priority," said Jinny Kim, director of the disability rights program for San Francisco-based Legal Aid at Work. "We’ve been suing public entities for a long time over accessibility. It’s a matter of agencies spending money and prioritizing it to make sure all people have access to their services."
Kim’s group has been involved in lawsuits over failures to install elevators or ramps in transit stations, but also to maintain them properly. For example, the group is involved in a lawsuit against Bay Area Rapid Transit alleging that the system’s pattern of broken or dirty elevators and escalators "effectively excludes" people with disabilities from the transit system.
Many agencies also offer paratransit solutions, an effort that ridesharing services like Uber and Via have expanded, but advocates say it is just as important that train and bus stations be accessible. Paratransit services can be expensive and may require reservations or extra time compared to the relative ease of public transit.
Kim said the ASAP Act would be helpful, especially as transit agencies have suffered from declining ridership during the pandemic. "Something like this gives them no excuse," she added.
W. Robert Schultz, a campaign organizer at Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance, said cities also need to consider "how people get to and from train and bus stations," which requires more focus on pedestrian infrastructure and sidewalk repair on top of the transit station work. A total focus on accessibility, he added, is necessary to make transportation equitable.
"These investments are going to be significant, but they allow people with disabilities to go about their everyday life in the way everyone should be able to," said Schultz. "We’re talking about spending to improve the lives of many, many people."