(Photo: Diana Kruzman)

When Eman Rimawi needed to get to a meeting or run an errand, she used to have to schedule a ride to pick her up a day or two in advance — a blue-and-white van provided through the MTA’s Access-A-Ride program for people with disabilities. She experienced long waits for the vans to arrive and was often late as the vans stopped to pick up other passengers along the way.

But in 2017, Rimawi, who works as a campaign coordinator for the nonprofit New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, was invited to join a pilot program for a new “on-demand” service through Access-A-Ride, where she could call a ride when she needed it rather than days earlier. 

“On-demand has seriously improved my life so that I wasn’t continuously late for meetings,” Rimawi said. 

Now, this program is one of several on the chopping block with the transit agency’s finances in tumult since ridership dropped steeply at the beginning of the pandemic. The 2020-2024 capital plan, which would make dozens more subway stations around the city wheelchair-accessible, is on hold while the MTA hopes for $12 billion in federal funds to address a budget shortfall. And Access-A-Ride, the city’s network of shared-ride vans and taxis for disabled riders who can’t use the subway or buses, may soon face the prospect of diminished and less efficient service. 

Transit accessibility advocates say that these cuts, although necessary due to the pandemic, unfairly target riders with disabilities. 

“When it comes to the disabled community, they always take the back seat,” said Tashia Lerebours, the Access-A-Ride coordinator for the Center For Independence of the Disabled, New York. “I understand they’re going through financial trouble, but the disabled community always seem to be the first to pay the price.” 

The MTA has said that no particular aspect of the transit system is being specially targeted, and that all aspects of the agency are threatened by the lack of federal emergency funding. 

“The potential actions that would need to be taken in the absence of $12 billion in emergency federal funding — including the reduction of subway, bus and commuter rail service, as well as a delay of the MTA’s historic capital plan — would affect anyone who uses the MTA system,” said Shams Tarek, a spokesperson for the agency. 

Activists like Lerebours have been fighting for changes to Access-a-Ride for years. The program, which started in 1990 following litigation against the city by people with disabilities and the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and charges riders $2.75, the same as the cost of a subway ride. It provides an essential service in a city where only about a quarter of 472 subway stations are currently wheelchair-accessible. 

About two-thirds of New Yorkers with mobility issues — of whom there are about half a million in the city — have to walk long distances to get to the nearest accessible subway station, according to a 2019 report from the New York Times. A lawsuit filed last year by groups including CIDNY alleged that renovating subway stations without adding elevators or other stair-free entrances, as the MTA has done in some cases, violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But while it’s supposed to provide equivalent service to public transportation, riders have long complained that the system of private van and car operators contracted by the MTA is inefficient and inconvenient. Drivers are often late and take circuitous routes around the city that can take hours, according to riders and the city’s own audits of the system. Moreover, the program comes at great cost to the city — the MTA spent $614 million on paratransit services in 2019 for about 160,000 riders. Rides in the system’s blue-and-white vans, which are owned by the MTA but operated by independent contractors, cost the city an average of $86 that year, higher than the cost of an average taxi ride. 

To address some of these concerns, the MTA launched a pilot program in 2017 offering “on-demand” rides in independent taxi or car services that could be booked through a mobile app or online, similar to rideshare services like Uber or Lyft. The program grew from its initial 200 users to 1,200 and was widely praised by riders like Rimawi and advocates like Lerebours, who called it “life-changing” to not have to schedule a ride in advance. And the cost, at about $37 per ride, was far lower than the traditional blue-and-white vans. 

“We want everyone to be able to call a ride when they need one,” said Joe Rappoport, director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. His organization has supported the on-demand pilot program and pushed for it to be expanded to more riders. 

In December, the MTA announced that it would expand the program to 2,400 people while restricting the number of monthly rides and subsidizing a smaller amount of the cost of each ride, but these plans were put on hold because of the pandemic. Then, in an August financial update to the Board of Directors, the MTA stated that without $12 billion in federal aid, the Access-A-Ride program may have to eliminate the on-demand program entirely, as well as increase its reliance on “feeder service,” which takes passengers to the nearest accessible subway or bus stop rather than to their ultimate destination. The MTA estimated that these changes could save up to $65 million per year.

Advocates, however, say that this would be disastrous for people who rely on Access-A-Ride to take them directly where they need to go. Feeder service can leave riders stranded when elevator outages — which are not always apparent from the surface of a subway station — make even accessible stations impossible to use, Lerebours said. 

“It’s not like the driver is going to get out of the car and check that all elevators are working,” Lerebours said. “We’re really not comfortable with feeder service.” 

The proposed changes to Access-A-Ride come as the MTA’s plan to add elevators at 70 stations in the next five years at a cost of $5.5 billion has been put on hold because of its pandemic-related budget shortfall. At the same time, at least five station elevator upgrades in the 2015-2019 capital plan, which is still ongoing, were delayed due to the pandemic, according to notes from the most recent meeting of the MTA Capital Program Oversight Committee. Three were completed several months behind schedule, while one received delayed approval to move forward and another — the Chambers Street subway stop in lower Manhattan — is expected to be completed in November. 

These delays, along with the proposed changes to Access-A-Ride, have put activists on the defensive. While before the pandemic they were pushing to expand the on-demand service to all riders, now many are simply asking for the MTA to preserve the current system. 

“If on-demand is eliminated, instead of errands taking three to four hours, they’ll go back to taking eight to ten hours,” Rimawi said. “I got used to being able to do things in a timely manner, in a way that I wasn’t in the vehicle all day and all night. To have that taken away, that doesn’t make me feel like a full professional.”