Testimony of Ruth Lowenkron, Esq., Disability Justice Director to NYC Committees on Aging, Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, Transportation and Infrastructure
Disability Justice, Health Justice, News
on behalf of
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
before the Council of the City of New York
Committee on Aging, Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction, and Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
regarding Oversight – Access-A-Ride
February 24, 2023
Good morning. My name is Ruth Lowenkron and I am the Director of the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). NYLPI, along with the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled (BCID), the Center for the Independence of the Disabled of New York (CIDNY), and Mobilization for Justice (MFJ), is a founding member of the Access-A-Ride Reform Group (AARRG!). Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony today regarding New York City’s paratransit system, Access-A-Ride.
I would like to begin by thanking the City Council for continuing to provide the opportunity to present testimony remotely. This is not only a life-saver for those concerned about contracting COVID or other communicable diseases, but also critical for those persons with disabilities who are unable to travel to City Hall and for those individuals like me who find themselves temporarily sidelined by a health condition. For these reasons, we urge you to continue to make this simple-to-facilitate option available to all, on a permanent basis.
I would also like to thank Chair Brooks-Powers for urging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to remain at City Hall after their testimony in order to hear the public’s comments, and I would like to thank Christopher Pangilinan, MTA’s vice president of paratransit, for doing what so few government officials do – in fact staying to listen to the public’s comments. I would additionally like to thank Vice President Pangilinan for resuscitating regular meetings with disability advocates to promote joint work toward reforming the Access-A-Ride program.
NYLPI urges the Council to exercise robust oversight over the MTA and advocate for a fully accessible mass transportation system. Lack of accessible transportation is the number two cause of the abysmal statistics of unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities. This is not only a matter of access and equal rights, but also a matter of ensuring that people with disabilities can be self-sufficient and need not rely on government benefits.
Moreover, the City contributes enormous funding to the MTA and is entitled to demand that the MTA provide an accessible system for all New Yorkers.
Specifically, we ask that the Council address the following:
The Access-A-Ride paratransit system, with over 170,000 users, remains a dysfunctional, unreliable, and wholly inflexible system. Rides must be booked at least one day in advance, no changes to booked rides are permitted, riders often endure long rides crisscrossing boroughs to get to their destination, rides are chronically late or conversely chronically early, and no-shows are common-place.
And do not be fooled by the MTA’s “on-time performance” statistics. In fact, incredibly, those statistics grant the MTA a half hour window within which they can be late yet still consider themselves on time! Are there any other government or other programs that employ such deceptive metrics?
Yet in one fell swoop – for 1,200 lucky riders – all of these issues disappeared when the MTA, at the behest of the disability community, implemented an “On Demand” pilot. Suddenly, riders who had been regularly attending MTA board meetings to complain about “Stress-A-Ride,” were now showing to talk about how On Demand was “life changing”! Life changing!
Riders no longer needed to booked rides in advance. They could go where they wanted, when they wanted. If they needed to stay at work later – no problem. If they needed to show up at a different work location — no problem. If their doctor said they could be squeezed in at the last moment – no problem. A change in their school schedule – no problem. Their friend says c’mon over for a cup of coffee – no problem. And more, and more, and more – no problem. On Demand also did away with the unconscionably lengthy trips and the chronically late/early pick-ups and arrivals.
But rather than recognize that On Demand was doing no more than the law required in providing equitable services to persons with disabilities, and rather than acknowledge that On Demand could make up for years of transportation discrimination, including a subway system that continues to be wholly inaccessible despite federal, state, and local accessibility mandates, the MTA became concerned that On Demand was increasing the miniscule costs of Access-A-Ride. Notably, each On Demand ride is cheaper by more than half than traditional Access-A-Ride rides. Yet, because Stress-A-Ride was turning into Bless-A-Ride, with praiseworthy service, more of the On Demand pilot riders (who notably were not selected at random, but rather already included the highest volume Access-A-Ride users) were taking more On Demand rides. One would have expected the slight increase in Access-A-Ride costs, and one would think that equitable services would be worth the extra cost – let alone legally mandated. But the MTA soon began to plot about how to ration Access-A-Ride services. Fortunately for the lucky 1,200, the MTA agreed to hold off on rationing services during the pandemic, but the threat of rationing is once again in the air. And again, do not be fooled by the MTA’s talk of expanding the pilot. Yes, adding more riders is critical, but rationing simply eviscerates the program. How can someone regularly arrive at their job on time if they can only utilize On Demand services a handful of times per month?
On Demand is not more than the law requires, but rather precisely what the law requires to provide services “comparable” with those provided to all other riders. Do not permit the MTA to ration Access-A-Ride services and once again balance the MTA’s budget on the backs of persons with disabilities.
And similarly, do not allow the MTA to balance the budget on the backs of persons with disabilities by denying them the fare discounts – monthly tickets, weekly tickets, half-fare pricing — that are available to all other mass transit users. The MTA suggests it is already being overly generous to the disability community by not charging them double the fare as outdated regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act permit. But in fact, the MTA’s “generosity” is mandated by a memorandum of understanding which the MTA entered into with the City, agreeing it is not permitted to charge more than the fare which other mass transit riders pay.
Eliminate Assessment Centers and In-Person Eligibility Assessments
So how should the MTA deal with its very real financial crisis?
We recommend the MTA consider such cost-saving measures as eliminating assessment centers (including the newest center it plans to open in March) and the expensive system of having each rider and potential rider individually assessed – and regularly re-assessed – in-person for program eligibility. Touting 90% eligibility approval statistics on initial application, and a “large number” who are then approved after an even more expensive review process, it seems illogical for the MTA to maintain the status quo. Rather, the MTA should return to the manner in which it determined eligibility when New York City ran the Access-A-Ride program – and the way the vast majority of benefit programs, including Social Security determine eligibility — by requiring robust application submissions by treating physicians. Notably traveling to assessment centers, and undergoing regular assessments, is also hugely burdensome for persons with disabilities.
Mandate a Speedier Schedule of Subway Elevator Installation
Eliminating the barriers to subway and bus usage is key to limiting the need for Access-A-Ride rides. Can’t the MTA do better than provide a mere 95% elevator compliance in 32 years? The MTA must undertake more and quicker elevator installations.
Eliminate the Gaps between Subway Cars and Subway Platforms
Similarly, the MTA must agree to expeditiously make the subway system accessible by eliminating the little-discussed, but enormously critical, gaps between subway cars and subway platforms that make many people with disabilities – especially those with mobility impairments and visual impairments – fear for their lives, if they actually can access the subway cars and platforms. The MTA must add gap protections, including retractable bridge plates and screen doors.
Improve the Subway’s Detectable Warning Systems on Platform Edges
To further ensure the safety of those with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments, the MTA must agree to expedite its replacement of broken and worn detectable warning systems (typically rubber, articulated surfaces) on platform edges.
Limit the City’s Funding of Access-A-Ride
The Governor’s proposed state budget calls for the City to pay the full cost of Access-A-Ride. But will the City – which is unable to independently raise taxes – be able to afford this cost? Putting the funds of an already highly problematic program at stake, would appear far less than prudent.
NYLPI respectfully requests that the Council do all in its power to ensure that the MTA:
- Expand the On Demand pilot to all riders, make it permanent, and not be permitted to ration such critical services;
- Make all fare discounts available to Access-A-Rider users which are currently available to all other mass transit users;
- Eliminate assessment centers and in-person eligibility assessments;
- Mandate a speedier schedule of subway elevator installation;
- Eliminate the gaps between subway cars and subway platforms;
- Improve the subway’s detectable warning systems on platform edges; and
- Limit the City’s funding of Access-A-Ride.
Thank you for your consideration. I can be reached at (212) 244-4664, ext. 311 or [email protected], and I look forward to the opportunity to discuss how best to improve Access-A-Ride for New Yorkers with disabilities.
About New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
For nearly 50 years, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) has been a leading civil rights advocate for New Yorkers marginalized by race, poverty, disability, and immigration status. Through our community lawyering model, we bridge the gap between traditional civil legal services and civil rights, building strength and capacity for both individual solutions and long-term impact. Our work integrates the power of individual representation, impact litigation, and comprehensive organizing and policy campaigns. Guided by the priorities of our communities, we strive to achieve equality of opportunity and self-determination for people with disabilities, create equal access to health care, ensure immigrant opportunity, strengthen local nonprofits, and secure environmental justice for low-income communities of color.
NYLPI’s Disability Justice Program works to advance the civil rights of New Yorkers with disabilities. In the past five years alone, NYLPI disability advocates have represented thousands of individuals and won campaigns improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Our landmark victories include mandating that the MTA equitably provide its Access-A-Ride services to all applicants and riders with limited English proficiency. We have worked together with the MTA to bring about an “on demand” Access-A-Ride program and to enable New York’s most indigent residents to obtain Fair Fare discounts when using Access-A-Ride. We recently filed a class action lawsuit seeking to permit all Access-A-Ride users to access the same discount programs available to all other MTA transit users, as well as a class action to remedy the enormous gaps between subway cars and subway platforms system-wide.
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