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Infrastructure measure includes fund to ensure nation’s transit stations are accessible

Three decades after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, about a fifth of transit stations still aren’t accessible

Snow is blown onto commuters while an arriving Chicago Transit Authority train arrives as a winter storm makes its way through several Midwest states in 2018. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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A $1.75 billion fund in the infrastructure package will aim to guarantee that transit stations are accessible, decades after campaigns by disability rights activists to demand lifts on buses helped to spur passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Almost a fifth of transit stations were not fully accessible in 2019, according to the most recent Federal Transit Administration data.

The inclusion of the money in the mammoth infrastructure package, adopted late Friday on a bipartisan 228-to-206 vote, caps a campaign by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a double amputee who uses a wheelchair. She recalled being invited to an event a few years ago to launch a Chicago Transit Authority effort to make its stations accessible, only to learn the work could take 25 years.

“This is great, but you do realize it’s been 25 years since the passage of the ADA and that this will take another 25 years,” Duckworth said she told the authority’s leaders. “You’re talking about a half-century that people with disabilities have been waiting.”

Duckworth said officials told her accessibility was a priority, but when it came to choosing whether to allocate limited dollars to safety or accessibility, safety would win out. Duckworth said she hopes the new dedicated federal fund will enable agencies across the country to tackle accessibility projects without having to divert money from other investments.

While $1.75 billion is a large sum, it’s a tiny fraction of the $1.2 trillion in the infrastructure measure. It illustrates how the package will sprinkle money to specific kinds of projects while also pumping hundreds of billions into highways, transit construction and railroads.

What’s in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package

Lawmakers have tucked a dozen or so similar funds into the package, according to an analysis by Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, identifying problems where they say dedicated funds could have an outsize impact. The bill includes $3 billion to eliminate dangerous at-grade railroad crossings, $5 billion for designing safer streets and $500 million for programs backing new technologies such as autonomous vehicles or infrastructure with embedded sensors to collect transportation data.

Most transportation dollars are passed through to states and local agencies, which have wide latitude when deciding how to spend them. But cities or states will have to apply for the special grant money for those programs through a competitive process, with officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation choosing the winners — giving leaders in Washington new power to shape the national transportation system.

While the accessibility program is relatively small, Republicans and Democrats clashed over transit funding in the bill and Duckworth said the program’s supporters had “to push pretty hard” to secure its place in the final bill. The bill also includes language about Amtrak, requiring that a person with disabilities be appointed to the railroad’s board and mandating spending on accessibility, which Duckworth said helped show that accessibility was a national issue and not only an urban concern.

About 25 million people in the United States report having a disability that limits their transportation options, and the Labor Department attributes lower rates of employment among people with disabilities, in part, to those obstacles. People with disabilities are almost twice as likely as others to use public transit to get around, according to the Transportation Department.

Duckworth said she is not able to ride the New York subway, which has relatively few accessible stations, and said even Metro in D.C. has proved a challenge because elevators can unexpectedly be out of service. Paratransit service can be inconvenient, requiring complicated scheduling even for simple trips.

“It’s just crazy what persons with disabilities go through, just to try and get to work or school or shopping,” Duckworth said.

Advocates for people with disabilities expect problems to worsen as the population ages.

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It’s been 31 years since Congress passed the ADA. An ad from the time by the disability services group Easterseals showed the cover of the legislation with the caption: “For millions of people, this is their first bus pass.”

The Chicago Transit Authority says all its buses and rail cars are now accessible, but 42 of its stations need upgrades. The job is difficult, according to the authority, because elevators have to be custom-designed and, in some cases, achieving full accessibility would mean widening platforms.

But the new federal money could help close the gaps. Duckworth said she envisions the money being used for major building projects like installing elevators, but also for quicker jobs such as implementing a phone app that is easier for people with vision, hearing or cognitive disabilities to use than traditional tickets.

“The language was done specifically so that it does not just single out projects for mobility impairments,” she said. “The language is so that it provides for making all stations fully accessible for all disabilities.”