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Access to trains sought

3 stations cited as unfair to disabled

Saying that conditions are unfair and unacceptable, state Representative Kay Khan is pushing for legislation that would require the MBTA to make Newton's three commuter-rail stations accessible to the disabled.

"We need to let the T know this needs to be done," said Khan, who cosponsored the bill with state Senator Cynthia S. Creem.

The one-sentence bill filed by the two Newton Democrats requires the authority to spend the money necessary to improve the Auburndale, West Newton, and Newtonville stations "to ensure that said stations are accessible, functional, and safe for use by persons with disabilities."

The Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee heard the bill last week and took it under advisement.

The bill does not include a price tag for the proposed work.

But $2 million in federal and state funds already have been designated for improvements at one station and Khan said that would not be enough to finish work there.

Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said a $310 million class-action lawsuit settlement reached in April between disabled people and the authority applies only to subway and bus service, not commuter-rail access.

Asked whether the MBTA would undertake the Newton projects, Pesaturo noted testimony at the hearing by MBTA officials on the authority's tight finances.

Jon Davis, chief financial officer for the MBTA, told the committee that the authority is struggling under a heavy debt burden while "expenses continue to grow faster than revenues."

The three Newton commuter-rail stations have no ramps or electric lifts to help disabled residents get to the railway's platform.

Visible from the Massachusetts Turnpike, all three stations require users to park and use the sidewalk to a Turnpike overpass.

From there, three flights of stairs lead down to the train platform.

According to the US Census, Newton has about 3,500 residents with physical disabilities.

One of the most vocal critics of the setup is not disabled. Carie Michael, a 43-year-old mother of two who lives a quarter-mile from the Auburndale station, said she contacted Khan years ago after experiencing problems getting to the station with her two children and a stroller.

She was also upset that her elderly parents stopped using the train altogether because they dreaded maneuvering with children on the stairs.

"It's a very tall staircase," Michael said. "It's kind of scary."

Amy Mah Sangiolo, vice president of the Newton Board of Aldermen, said she has been listening to complaints about access to the stations for several years.

Michael contacted her, as did many residents with disabilities. Sangiolo said solutions -- and the money to fund them -- are difficult to come by.

"It's very difficult to figure out where they would construct an elevator or how they would do [improvements]," she said.

"I can't imagine it's an easy fix."

Douglas Sweet, chairman of the Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities in Newton, said the MBTA has been slow to improve access to the commuter rail. Sweet is blind and able to navigate the stations, but he said many elderly residents and people in wheelchairs cannot.

"It's a challenge for lots of people," he said. "This is a problem we've had for a long time."

The MBTA has been drawing up plans to make the Auburndale station more accessible.

The MBTA received nearly $2 million in mostly federal funding for improvements, after lobbying by US Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat.

Pesaturo said preliminary designs by the firm Amman & Whitney should be ready by late summer, at which time they will be presented to local officials and the community.

Khan said the Auburndale station was included in the MBTA's list of priority projects because it received the federal funding, but there is no timetable or funding for the Newtonville and West Newton stations.

She said she hopes that the recent appointment of Gary Talbot as the MBTA's first assistant general manager for systemwide access will help speed the changes.

Talbot, who uses a wheelchair, was appointed last week as part of the class-action settlement.

"I'd like to meet with him right away," Khan said, "and bring him to Newton."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at