WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation opened a program Tuesday that allows cities to apply for federal funds to make public transit stations more accessible to people with disabilities, advancing the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide access to $1.75 billion to upgrade stations that do not comply with the law.
The program, passed as part of the infrastructure law enacted last year, would address a persistent problem in New York and other major cities across the country that built transit systems long before the ADA was signed into law. The 1990 statute protects people with disabilities from discrimination on public transportation and requires that they have equal access to transit systems, but many stations built before they existed are largely inaccessible to those using wheelchairs or They have limited mobility.
The federal money, $343 million of which will be available this year, will allow receiving cities to renovate subway stations so people who need an elevator, a ramp or visual and hearing aids can access rail systems.
“It’s one thing to push transit agencies to comply; it’s another to fund them and help them actually do it,” said Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, in an interview to promote the start of the transit program.
Mr. Buttigieg said there were some 900 stations across the country that were not ADA compliant. The department moved quickly to launch the program amid growing concerns about inflation, which has raised the cost of renovation projects substantially, he said, but has not yet set a date for the first round of funding to be disbursed. .
The need is particularly great in New York, which has the largest number of non-compliant stations in the country, and where only a little more than a quarter of the stations comply with the law. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently agreed to make most of its subway trains accessible by 2055 as part of a settlement in two class action lawsuits.
“At a time when public transportation is depressed compared to pre-pandemic levels, we need to be as inclusive as possible,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a transportation accessibility organization based in the city of New York. New York.
Other cities, including Boston and Chicago, face similar problems, according to the Department of Transportation.
More than 25 million Americans had a disability that limited travel, and 3.6 million did not leave their homes because of it in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The Federal Transit Administration said a quarter of the country’s train stations remain inaccessible as of 2020, a Department of Transportation representative said.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing stories from friends or constituents who can’t use public transportation because they have the nerve to get around in a wheelchair,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, a double amputee and the first disabled woman . elected to Congress, who led the effort to include the program in the infrastructure measure.
The program, which will ultimately award a total of $1.75 billion over the next five years, opens at a time when transit agencies have been hit by falling revenue from the pandemic. It’s a small part of the infrastructure bill, which administration officials, economists and business groups have called the most significant step in a generation toward improving America’s critical infrastructure systems.
Mitch Landrieu, a senior adviser to President Biden who is leading implementation of the infrastructure law, said the program fit with the administration’s top priority in deploying its funding: equity.
“Accessibility should never be a barrier,” Landrieu said. “The impact of accessibility improvements goes beyond people with disabilities because it also improves stations for parents with strollers.”
When the ADA was enacted 32 years ago, only 6 percent of Chicago’s train stations were in compliance. Now about 70 percent of its stations have been upgraded, but the rest face technical and financial challenges, the Chicago Transit Authority said in a statement.
“Some were never designed to house an elevator or other accessibility structure. Others are located on small lots or in the median of highways,” the statement read. “Rehabilitating those stations takes a lot of time and money.”
In Philadelphia, renovating aging stations will cost an estimated $4 billion, according to Kelly Greene, a spokeswoman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. SEPTA has created a timeline for making its stations ADA accessible, including projects that could be funded by the new program.
Jinny Kim, director of Legal Aid’s Disability Rights Program, said the program would help prioritize accessibility even as transit systems have grappled with lower fares for passengers during the pandemic.
“People with disabilities can continue to use public transportation because they depend on it,” he said. “When public transportation systems are inaccessible, they simply cannot access society.”