MTA promises to make the New York subway 95% accessible It will take 33 years.

New York has lagged years behind other major American cities in making its subway system accessible to people with disabilities: Only 126 of its 472 stations, or 27%, have elevators or ramps that make them fully accessible.

But on Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it would add elevators and ramps to 95% of subway stations by 2055 as part of a settlement in two class-action lawsuits over the matter.

The settlement, which still requires court approval, would set a clear – and long – timeline for resolving an issue that effectively prevented people who use wheelchairs and mobility devices from fully accessing the city’s transit system, a backbone of life. New York’s social and economic .

Under the agreement, the transportation authority will make 81 more subway and Staten Island Railway stations accessible by 2025. It will then make another 85 stations accessible by 2035, 90 more by 2045, and 90 more by 2055.

Metro stations slated for change include nine that are currently partially accessible, where passengers who cannot use stairs have access only to trains traveling in one direction.

“We don’t have equity, we don’t have equality, if people can’t use a mass transit system that for so many people – more than half of New Yorkers – is the only way to get around,” Janno Lieber, chairman of the authority, said.

Both Mr. Lieber and disability groups acknowledged that the agreed schedule was slow. Transit officials said engineering concerns, construction time and costs required a long-term plan.

And even when the work is done — more than six decades after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in public facilities — the subway is still not set to be 100% accessible.

“We’d like it sooner,” said Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action, a nonprofit that is the plaintiff. “But they say they can’t do it before. And you don’t make someone promise to do something they can’t do.”

The changes will benefit a wide range of passengers struggling to use narrow passage gates or climb subway stairs, including parents carrying children in strollers, shoppers carrying large items home and airport travelers with luggage.

But the deal’s most transformative effects will be felt by people with disabilities who have long been excluded from large swaths of New York’s subway system and, by extension, parts of the city it serves.

Samuel Jimenez, 65, who uses a cane, said he expected to see significant improvements in the system. The Montrose Avenue station in Brooklyn, where he usually boards, does not have an elevator, which makes traveling difficult.

“I have to walk down the steps at my station, which takes me an hour and a day,” said Jimenez, who was traveling for a dialysis appointment, at Union Square station on Wednesday. “I would say that slows me down a bit. I miss a lot of trains because of that.”

Many individual subway lines have significant stretches that are off-limits to wheelchair users, including areas outside of Manhattan where the distance between accessible elevators is more than 10 stops. They include large sections of the G and J lines, part of the F line, and much of the part of the 6 line that crosses the Bronx.

Ryan, who rode the subway for 25 years before starting to use a powered wheelchair, said these gaps force many people with disabilities to use less convenient and reliable, and sometimes more expensive, modes of transport than the subway.

“This lasts 24 hours and is spontaneous,” she said. “You can change your plans. You can do anything with the subway.”

Disability rights activists have for years tried to pressure transit authorities to improve access, with a particular focus on the lack of elevator service. In 2017, a group of organizations and residents with disabilities filed a lawsuit in state court that said the lack of elevators in the transit system was a violation of the city’s human rights law.

Two years later, another set of plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit accusing the transit agency of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when employees renovated subway stations without installing elevators, ramps or similar accommodations.

When the law was passed in 1990, it required all public facilities built after 1993 to be accessible. While most of the metro system is significantly older than that, the transit agency in 1994 reached an agreement with the federal government to make 100 “key stations” accessible by 2020, a goal achieved.

Transit systems newer than New York’s, including those in San Francisco and Washington, are fully accessible. And other older subway systems have significantly higher accessibility rates than New York’s. More than two-thirds of stations in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards.

New York transit officials were criticized for the slow pace of improvements, which passengers with disabilities said were insufficient given the breadth and scope of the subway system. It operates 24 hours a day and has the most stations of any city in the world.

“They’ve been fighting us for over five years in these lawsuits,” Ryan said.

In late 2019, as the lawsuits were debated in court, officials approved a $5.2 billion plan to add elevators to 70 stations by 2024, a speed the agency had “never” operated before, Lieber said.

The settlement agreement would anticipate this commitment. The transit authority would be required to dedicate about 15 percent of the metro’s capital budget – which is used for construction, modernization and maintenance projects – to specific efforts to improve accessibility.

“It’s going to take billions of dollars, it’s going to take a lot of sweat and muscle, but we’re going to make it,” Lieber said.

The deal will represent a significant financial outlay for a transit authority that has faced increasing fiscal pressure as a result of the pandemic. The transit system has long struggled to keep capital expenditures low, paying some of the world’s highest construction costs for projects.

Transit authorities already have a long list of expensive projects and system upgrades in their capital plan. A congestion pricing plan that was supposed to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for these improvements has been delayed, with Governor Kathy Hochul and Lieber blaming officials in Washington for an extensive federal review process.

Even with the financial investment it requires, the agreement will not bring the metro system to full accessibility. Mr. Lieber said the remaining 5% of stations not covered by the deal have difficult engineering issues, including concerns about stability or additional weight, which would make adding elevators or ramps unfeasible.

The agreement will also not address the condition of existing elevators, the focus of another lawsuit. Passengers who rely on elevators say they are poorly maintained and that even those that are working properly are overcrowded, dirty and plagued by bad smells.

Milagros Ortiz, 69, who has a heart condition and uses a walker, said Wednesday morning that Union Square elevators were often out of order, limiting his travel.

And even when they were working, she said, seemingly simple travel could be an ordeal.

To travel from her Alphabet City home to a Target in downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday, she took a bus to Union Square, then two elevators to the subway platform.

Arriving at the Atlantic Avenue station, she had to take three elevators to reach street level, with long walks in between.

But still, she said, it was better than the alternative.

“I can’t go upstairs,” she said. “If you see the stairs, it’s like you never get to heaven.”

Olivia Bensimon contributed reporting.

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