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Congestion pricing and equal access

On its best day, the New York City subway system is only marginally usable for people with disabilities. On most days, it’s downright abysmal. Between a lack of elevators, dangerous gaps between the trains and platforms, and a host of other barriers, equal access to the subways for people with disabilities is non-existent.

However, New York’s first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan promised to invest resources to fix the subways and make them more accessible. That’s why it’s so disappointing that disability rights have gotten lost in the sauce of the congestion pricing debate. It’s also why MTA’s recent proposed partial exemption for people with disabilities just doesn’t pass muster.

To make the subways accessible to people with disabilities, a significant portion of the revenue generated from congestion pricing’s toll to enter Manhattan’s central business district — approximately $1 billion per year — will go directly to the MTA Capital Plan to create better transit options. The MTA also entered into a legal commitment in 2022 to make 95% of subway stations accessible by 2055. 

An accessible subway system not only benefits people with disabilities, but all riders, including seniors, parents with strollers, and delivery workers. Better subway infrastructure will also encourage improved ridership. Lastly, improved subway access will lessen the reliance on the Access-A-Ride (AAR) paratransit service, which is inarguably slow, unreliable, and expensive to operate. AAR vehicles that continue to operate will be aided by decreased road congestion, allowing them to move faster. 

Making the subway system accessible, however, will take decades. People with disabilities need a functional AAR service now. Accordingly, the MTA must allocate funding to improve AAR service, increase oversight over AAR subcontractors, and assist in the transition to electric vehicles, which will help lower rates of asthma and pulmonary disorders.

The MTA recently announced that the congestion pricing plan will enable some people with disabilities to apply for an exemption from the new toll pricing for vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th St. that may begin in June.

However, this Band-Aid solution doesn’t cover everyone. Moreover, it’s inexcusable that the MTA only a month ago announced this plan, considering the New York State Legislature passed the congestion pricing law almost five years ago to the day. By publicizing its plan for the disability exemption on the eve of the congestion pricing rollout, the MTA limited the ability of the disability community to weigh in on the plan.

Moreover, the MTA’s partial coverage of the disability community defies the intent of the Legislature, which carved out only two groups as exempt in the language of the law: emergency vehicles and those transporting people with disabilities. 

The MTA must right this wrong and link the “exemption reader” to a personal electronic device rather than to a vehicle, offer a remote application process rather than forcing individuals with disabilities to travel to eligibility assessment centers, and extend the exemption to qualifying individuals when they ride in accessible taxi, Uber, and Lyft vehicles. 

These changes don’t need to delay the rollout of congestion pricing, but they must be integrated in the near-term. To be clear, the changes above are not insurmountable barriers for the MTA to overcome. Rather, they are based on existing technologies and have been modeled by congestion pricing plans in other cities.

Currently, a handful of states across the U.S. already use mobile apps to collect tolls in real-time. Moreover, London, in administering its own congestion pricing program, permits people with disabilities to apply for their exemptions remotely, rather than appearing at assessment centers as planned by the MTA.

There are endless ways to easily broaden the disability exemption to cover all people with disabilities, in accordance with legislative intent. The MTA’s rushed plan needlessly excludes many. 

The MTA has just resoundingly voted on congestion pricing, so now is the time to make sure they deliver on their promises of this ground-breaking plan. If done right, it can reduce maddening traffic and harmful carbon emissions and create an accessible transit system.

Congestion pricing can pave the way for a future where all New Yorkers can enjoy freedom of movement and equal access to the opportunities afforded by the city.

Simon is a disability civil rights lawyer and a New York State Assemblymember representing parts of Brooklyn. Schuyler is a managing attorney with the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Rimawi is a senior organizer with the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and an Access-A-Ride user.


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