Disability rights advocates win ruling over lack of NYC subway elevators

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City’s transit authority violated federal disability law when it replaced a subway station’s stairs without installing an elevator, a federal judge has ruled, a decision that could require new elevators in future station renovations.

Commuters take the stairs at L line subway station in New York, U.S. January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

The ruling, issued on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos in Manhattan, came as part of a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) filed in 2016 by disability rights groups, joined last year by the Justice Department.

Ramos found that when the MTA renovates a station in a way that affects its usability, such as by replacing stairs, the federal Americans with Disability Act requires it to install an elevator unless it is technically infeasible, regardless of cost.

Brett Eisenberg, executive director of the disability advocacy group Bronx Independent Living Services, in a statement called the decision “a major victory for all New Yorkers who need elevators to access the subway.” The group was one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“The MTA is now on notice that whenever it renovates a subway station throughout its system so as to affect the station’s usability, the MTA is obligated to install an elevator, regardless of the cost, unless it is technically infeasible,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “Individuals with disabilities have the same rights to use the New York City subway system as every other person.”

The MTA could not immediately be reached for comment.

The lawsuit was filed over the MTA’s $27 million renovation of Middletown Road station on the No. 6 line in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx in 2013 and 2014, which did not include installing an elevator so disabled people could use it.

The MTA argued in court papers that it was entitled not to install an elevator because of high cost.

Fewer than 25 percent of New York City subway stations have elevators, according to Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit that provided legal representation for the plaintiffs.

The system has been plagued by growing delays attributed to such factors as inadequate maintenance, a crumbling infrastructure and outdated signaling, even as ridership has grown. Andy Byford, the current president of the MTA unit that operates the subway, has pledged to improve the system and has said that accessibility will be a top priority.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas