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MBTA given mixed grades on accessibility

Settlement review cites uneven gains

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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The judge monitoring the settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit over MBTA accessibility said the T has made considerable progress in the last four years, but riders with disabilities still face daily obstacles to using the public transit system.

“In some areas, a lot has been accomplished. In other areas, very little,’’ said Patrick J. King, the retired state Superior Court judge appointed by a federal court to monitor the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s compliance. “But the momentum has been in the right direction, and gradually we’re seeing some changes.’’

The 2002 lawsuit accused the T of moving too slowly to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, citing inaccessible stations, subway cars, and buses; poor signage and unreliable announcements; and operators untrained or unwilling to assist riders with disabilities. In the 2006 settlement, the T pledged to reform its practices and to make its facilities more accessible.

In one of the twice-yearly meetings required by the settlement, King said yesterday the T has made “tremendous progress’’ by spending hundreds of millions on new elevators and equipment, changing the atmosphere at the agency, and making a good-faith commitment to the agreement.

King said the speed of progress has been checked by the recession and the magnitude of the work needed, but not every delay is a result of money or construction schedules. For example, he said, the T has purchased more than 360 evacuation chairs, but riders with disabilities say the agency has not developed a comprehensive plan for using them during an emergency.

The three-hour meeting, which drew more than 50 accessibility advocates and riders with disabilities, provided a forum for the public to comment on the settlement’s progress.

Karen Schneiderman of Jamaica Plain said her daily commute has been aided by bridge plates covering the gaps between platforms and subway cars — sometimes half a foot or more — that the T is using until it can upgrade the service with new trains and platforms. But Schneiderman, who uses a wheelchair, said some T workers on weekends are unfamiliar with the bridge plates, and do not know how to unlock them from station walls.

“They’re not doing this to be mean, they’re not doing this to be rude,’’ said Schneiderman, who works as a senior advocacy specialist for the Boston Center for Independent Living. “For the most part, they’re very nice. But they don’t know how to do it.’’

Miriam Cooper, a college student from Cambridge, said she is disappointed that the screens being installed at MBTA stations to show real-time locations of subway cars do not also have an audio component for the blind.

“Something like this, which is a new piece of equipment, to have it come out and be new and be inaccessible to me is extremely frustrating,’’ said Cooper, who attended the meeting with her guide dog, Boe.

Several senior managers from the T participated in the meeting, and their attendance was cited by the authority’s general manager, Richard A. Davey, as evidence of the agency’s intent.

“My point is, we take this seriously,’’ said Davey, in the T’s top job since March. “You’ve got my commitment that to get our attention will never take a lawsuit again. You have our attention, you have our commitment, that we want to make public transportation accessible to all.’’

The meeting came as Davey and the T try to manage the soaring cost of the Ride, a federally mandated service that provides door-to-door trips for those unable to use the public transit system because of a physical or mental disability. Over the past decade, MBTA spending on the program quadrupled to $85 million a year, and ridership continues to rise. Riders pay the equivalent of subway fare, and the T subsidizes the remaining 95 percent of the cost.

Davey told the authority’s board of directors last week at its monthly meeting that he wants to market the improvements the T has made to the subway and bus system to attract some Ride users who were discouraged by the old MBTA.

“The experience they’ll have today is completely different,’’ Gary Talbot, the assistant general manager who oversees systemwide accessibility, said after yesterday’s meeting.

MBTA customer Don Summerfield agreed. “There’s a lot to be done,’’ said the Cambridge resident, who uses a cane, “but in these past few years there’s so much that’s happened.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.