Infrastructure law accelerates Chicago’s push to make CTA stations accessible
Source: Chicago Tribune
More than 31 years after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 of Chicago’s “L” stations still lack the elevators and other upgrades they need to be fully accessible.
Those aging stations could get upgraded sooner than expected, thanks to a provision pushed by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth that was included in the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill recently signed into law by President Joe Biden. The legislation sets aside $1.75 billion in grants for transit agencies to make their stations fully accessible, a program modeled after the Chicago Transit Authority’s 20-year plan to place elevators in all of its stations.
“This is groundbreaking,” Duckworth said. “It’s an issue for all legacy rail systems, like Boston, Oakland, Chicago and New York, but it also applies to bus stations as well. This is going to be significant across the country.”
Signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against Americans with disabilities and requires all newly constructed buildings to be fully accessible. Older buildings that predated the law, however, were grandfathered in and are not required to be improved unless they underwent substantial renovations.
Of Chicago’s 145 “L” stations, 103 have elevators and are fully accessible. The other 42 have not been upgraded in decades, with some last renovated in the 1930s and a handful that have not been substantially improved since the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to CTA records.
Inaccessible 'L' stations
Thanks in part to efforts by Sen. Tammy Duckworth and the Chicago Transit Authority, the new federal infrastructure bill includes $1.75 billion to upgrade transit stations across the country that are not fully accessible to those with disabilities. Chicago currently has 42 ‘L’ stations that are not fully accessible. Here is where they are located:
Sources: Tribune reporting; Chicago Transit Authority
In 2018, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled the transit agency’s All Stations Accessibility Program, or ASAP, an effort to make all of the CTA’s stations accessible by 2038. Duckworth recalled meeting with Carter before the announcement.
“He showed me this vision, and it was beautiful and it was gorgeous. And then I looked at him and said, ‘So, a half-century after the ADA’s passage is when we’re going to see full accessibility?’” Duckworth said. “I said, ‘That’s not good enough, Dorval.’”
Carter explained to Duckworth that, as is often the case in government, executing the plan sooner was a matter of funding. As a result, the CTA’s plan became the foundation for the federal ASAP Act Duckworth introduced in May, which called for $10 billion in funding over 10 years to make stations nationwide accessible. Illinois U.S. Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García and Marie Newman introduced a companion bill in the House.
That legislation has been superseded by the federal infrastructure bill. In the end, Duckworth said the $1.75 billion in the bill was about half of what she had hoped to get, but she called it a substantial start. While Chicago will have to compete against other transit agencies for the funding, Carter and Duckworth agreed that the fact the provision is based on the city’s program makes it likely the CTA will land a substantial grant.
“We already have a plan that has had input from the disability community and will carry a lot of credibility. It shows we are ready to move forward, we’ve identified our priorities and we have identified what the costs are going to be,” Carter said. “That’s going to give us a leg up, because I’m not aware of any of the other major transit systems putting together a plan like this.”
The agency’s 123-page ASAP plan estimates the total cost of making the “L” system fully accessible is $2.1 billion.
More than $1.78 billion of that money would go to overhauling stations that currently are not accessible. That does not include the renovation of the Lawrence, Argyle, Bryn Mawr and Berwyn Red Line stations, which currently are being improved and made fully accessible as part of the first phase of the plan to upgrade stations and replace aging track on the Red Line north of Belmont all the way to Evanston. Those stations are scheduled to be completed by 2025.
The $1.78 billion estimate for station renovations also does not include plans to overhaul the elevated State/Lake Red Line station, a project that the Chicago Department of Transportation is pursuing separately. That station was constructed in 1897 and has not seen a major renovation since, according to CTA records.
Two other elevated stations in the Loop are part of the CTA’s accessibility plan: LaSalle/Van Buren, also built in 1897 with no major renovations since, and Adams/Wabash, which was built in 1896 and rehabbed in the late 1980s.
The Blue Line has the most inaccessible stations — 19, with 14 of those built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, the Belmont, Irving Park and Montrose Blue Line stations on the Northwest Side have not undergone major renovation since opening in 1970.
The Green Line has three stations on its western leg — Oak Park, Ridgeland and Austin — that were last rebuilt in 1962 and don’t have elevators.
The Red Line has 11 stations that are not fully accessible, including the North Side Sheridan stop last rebuilt in 1930 and the Monroe stop in the Loop constructed in 1943. The Purple Line has six stations in Evanston that are not fully accessible — two that have not been overhauled since they opened in 1909 and another four that were last rebuilt in 1931, according to CTA records.
Carter said the cost for making stations accessible can vary greatly depending on the site. For example, he said the Sheridan station on the Red Line, a rundown facility with a steep, narrow staircase, is landlocked by nearby businesses and is built on an “S” curve, which likely would require the CTA to acquire land in order to make the station accessible.
The CTA president estimated that just 10% of CTA stations were accessible at the time the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, and said it’s notable that the “L” system is now 70% accessible.
“But for that customer who has to use the Sheridan station, that 70% doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” Carter said. “That’s the whole point: We really have to get to 100% to really make the system usable for people with disabilities.”
In addition to the $1.78 billion cost to install elevators in stations that don’t have them, the CTA’s accessibility plan calls for another $318.6 million that would go toward replacing existing elevators at “L” stations, which often aren’t operating because of maintenance issues. For example, on Wednesday, 14 elevators at “L” stations were out of service, many with no expected date of when they would be operating again, according to the CTA’s website.
When Chicago transit officials unveiled ASAP, the agency estimated eight elevators could be replaced each year under the program, or a total 160 over 20 years. The average estimated cost to replace an elevator in 2017 dollars was $1.5 million, according to the plan.
It’s hard to measure the negative impact of a station that is not accessible or an elevator that is broken, said Charles Petrof, an attorney with Access Living, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for the disability community.
He gave the example of how two inaccessible Purple Line stations are near NorthShore University Health System in Evanston and wondered how many disabled people have to make alternative transportation plans as a result.
“If you had to build your life around a smattering of stations you can access, I think you’d find it incredibly difficult to build that life,” said Petrof, who helped advocate for the funding in the infrastructure bill. “You’d be amazed how many times you need to go somewhere else.”
Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in a combat helicopter crash in Iraq, said she does not ride the “L” because of the unreliability of whether she’ll be able to access an elevator at whatever given stop she might have to use. She said many others don’t have the luxury of easily arranging for other means of transportation.
“I don’t take the ‘L,’ but if I were a person with a disability trying to get to my job, to have that taken off the table as an option, significantly impacts my mobility,” Duckworth said. “If you think of a person walking with a cane, not just a wheelchair, it becomes a safety issue, not just a convenience issue. So, this is part of daily life for many people.”
Duckworth said she still often comes across a store or building that is not accessible to her in a wheelchair.
“They’re always like, ‘Oh, we’re grandfathered in because we’re a historic building.’ And I say, ‘It’s been 30 years since the passage of ADA, you couldn’t buy a ramp? A portable plywood ramp costs 50 bucks,’” said Duckworth, a Democrat from suburban Hoffman Estates. “For me, it’s a frustration, but for many people with disabilities, it is a hurdle they cannot overcome in order to get to work and that means they can’t live the productive, fulfilling life they want to live.”
Petrof said getting the station accessibility money in the infrastructure bill is a good first start in correcting what “was negotiated away” to secure the final passage of the ADA more than three decades ago. He credited Duckworth for taking the lead on the issue in Washington and Carter for having the foresight to implement a plan on which the legislation could be based.
“CTA needs to get full credit here. They had no legal obligation to worry about full accessibility of their elevated system, and they chose to take it on and they chose to give themselves a 20-year deadline. That is not the way most other parts of government in the United States are working,” Petrof said. “As a result, I think the CTA will beat their 20-year deadline now. I’m not sure by how many years, but that’s the underlying understanding now.”
Carter declined to estimate how much sooner CTA might be able to complete the work. A lot of that, he said, will depend on yet-to-be-determined rules surrounding the grants and how much the agency will be allowed to request. Duckworth noted that grants would be awarded with the federal government covering 80% of a program’s cost and local agencies covering the remaining 20%.
The accessibility money makes up just a portion of billions of dollars in grants available in the federal infrastructure bill. Carter said he will seek grants to pursue an extension of the Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street, to fund future phases of modernizing the Red and Purple lines and to help pay for a plan that would upgrade the track and stations on the Blue Line’s western leg to Forest Park.
Carter said that if the CTA wins grants for long-term projects along the Red, Purple and Blue lines, the agency could improve more stations even sooner through whatever additional grants it receives for station accessibility.
“I’m going to have multiple places to go to get money for this,” Carter said. “But I think the really good news is that with the amount of money in play is that my 20-year horizon to make all of our stations accessible is going to become shorter. How much shorter depends on how much money I get.”
By: Bill Ruthhart
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