Despite a precarious financial situation going into the new year, the MTA has created a new top position: Chief Accessibility Officer, reporting directly to Chairman Pat Foye. The new role will be filled by Quemuel Arroyo, the former head of accessibility at the NYC Department of Transportation.
Former New York City Transit President Andy Byford created a similar position in 2018 with the first senior Advisor for System Wide Accessibility, and hired Alex Elegudin to report to him. Arroyo, who uses a wheelchair, will be responsible for accessibility across the MTA, including Metro-North, Long Island Railroad, and Transit.
Arroyo’s job will require him to balance being an advocate for the accessibility community, which often calls for nothing less than a full accessibility, and a representative for MTA leadership, with all of its financial and physical limitations.
But unlike his predecessor, who backed Byford’s ambitious accessibility plan for ensuring riders will never be more than two subway stops from a station with working elevators, Arroyo said the MTA needs to think about alternatives, like ramps.
“I don’t think saying that every station doesn’t require elevators is controversial at all,” Arroyo told Gothamist. “Elevators break, that’s just the reality, and I know that ramps never break.”
Currently, about 29 percent of the MTA’s 472 subway stations are accessible, or 135 stations (although nine of these are only partially accessible). The MTA had hoped to create 70 newly accessible stations by 2024, before pandemic losses forced the agency to put its capital plan on hold.
The MTA has looked into ramps in the past, but in Manhattan anyhow, there often isn’t enough space.
Advocates aren’t against Arroyo’s plan, but say they’ll continue to push to create a subway network that is fully accessible to everyone. “This is a civil rights issue and I think people with disabilities deserve to have the same access to the subway as people without disabilities,” said Jessica Murray, the chair of the advisory committee for transit accessibility at New York City Transit and an organizer with the group Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group.
It’s also a legal issue.
“The MTA is fighting our lawsuits as if they never heard of the American With Disabilities Act. And as if they’ve never heard of the New York City Human Rights Law,” said Joe Rappaport, Executive Director at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID) and a plaintiff in three lawsuits against the MTA over its lack of accessibility.
“They’ve made no real effort to settle the lawsuits, at all, and they’re trying to drag this out forever, as far as anyone can tell,” he added. Rappaport said he’s hopeful the appointment of “Q,” the nickname friends and colleagues use for Quemuel Arroyo, is a sign the MTA might take another approach. “But so far, when there’ve been other accessible advisors at the New York City Transit, that just didn’t happen,” Rappaport said.
The MTA has a history of being sued for not installing elevators when making repairs or upgrades to a station. The agency has often said it costs too much and isn’t feasible given the age of the stations and complicated ownership of street space.
Arroyo confirmed to Gothamist that he would weigh in on the ongoing lawsuits, but wouldn’t comment specifically about the cases or how he’d advise MTA lawyers.
The ongoing issue of how to reduce the cost of the Access-A-Ride program will also fall on Arroyo to navigate. Before the pandemic, the MTA had planned to curtail the popular e-hail program. Now the program’s future remains up in the air. Arroyo says he doesn’t frequently use Access-A-Ride, but prefers to ride the subway.
The MTA currently has about 20 projects to add elevators in either the planning or construction phase.
Arroyo, who previously worked at the DOT for six years, and also worked on new accessibility projects at the Jay Street station, said he wants to use technology to help riders. For example, finding a way to use bluetooth technology to inform riders with hearing problems about service changes at the same time as other riders.
“New Yorkers with disabilities have won a huge battle today by getting their voices, their experiences represented at the table at the most senior level at the MTA,” Arroyo said.