The replacement of stairways at the Middletown Road Subway Station in the Bronx triggered accessibility requirements that may include installing elevators, according to a recent decision from SDNY District Judge Edgardo Ramos. In Bronx Independent Living Services v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Judge Ramos held that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and NYC Transportation Authority (NYCTA) are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide access individuals with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs, regardless of cost, unless alterations are technically infeasible.

Middletown Road Station is an IRT 6 train station in the Bronx. To board a train at the station, passengers must climb two sets of stairs, one to reach a mezzanine area to buy a ticket, and a second to reach the elevated train platform. No elevators are available at the station. The scope of work for a renewal project at the station in 2011 called for, among other thing, complete replacement of the street-to-mezzanine and mezzanine-to-platform staircases, but did not provide for the installation of elevators.

Renovation at the Middletown Road Station began in October 2013 and ended in May 2014. In June 2016, two non-profit advocacy organizations and two disabled individuals filed an ADA complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief requiring MTA and NYCTA to install elevators at the station. In March 2018, the United States intervened and filed its own ADA complaint-in-intervention.  The SDNY advised the Court that the crucial discovery it would seek in the case was the technical feasibility for installing an elevator.

The Court’s summary judgment decision construed section 12147 of the ADA, which regulates the accessibility obligations of public entities making alterations to public transit facilities like subway stations, and its implementing regulations.  The parties agreed that on summary judgment the issue for the Court was which of two sections of the implementing regulations should apply.  Under 49 CFR § 37.43(a)(1), accessibility alterations must be made no matter the cost, and under 49 CFR § 37.43(a)(2), they must be made if doing so would not be disproportionately expensive.

Under section 37.43(a)(1), where alterations to existing public transportation facilities could affect the “usability” of a station, the altered potions must be readily accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs, “to the maximum extent feasible.” The Second Circuit has previously held that the phrase “maximum extent feasible” requires accessibility alterations to be made regardless of cost.

The Court held that this section applied because the subway station renewal project affected the usability of the station by, among other things, replacing the stairways. The Court found that the Defendants entirely replaced the stairways, along with replacing walls, floors, railings and platforms. The Court held the replacement of stairways to be an alteration triggering the stations’ usability within the meaning of the statute and regulation.

Judge Ramos rejected the MTA and NYCTA argument for application of section 37.43(a)(2), for alterations that affect the usability of an area with a primary function. This provision would have only required accessibility alterations if the cost and scope were not disproportionate. The Court agreed that this provision also applied, but held that the two requirements were not mutually exclusive, and the second applied to a less broad set of alterations. The Court ruled that since the first section on usability applied, Defendants are required to provide access, regardless of cost, unless the alterations are technically infeasible.

This decision presents a broad requirement with which the MTA and NYCTA will have to comply in subway renovations throughout the city, but the agencies will not have an immediate opportunity to appeal the legal issue. The case will continue with expert discovery in the district court, which will include the issue of whether it is technically infeasible to install elevators at the Middletown Road Station. Judge Ramos has approved a consent schedule for the parties to complete expert discovery by the end of July.