INVESTIGATION: Disabled And Downtown On The CTA
By Eli Kaberon
Five of the CTA's 10 busiest train stations cannot accommodate a customer in a wheelchair, and that's perfectly legal under the nearly 20-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act.
The federal law allows older mass transit systems like the Chicago Transit Authority to forgo installing elevators, ramps and other equipment that would give the disabled access unless a stop is renovated or has been designated a "key station." In all, 88 of the CTA's 144 train stations - or 61 percent - are accessible.
Jim Watkins, co-chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority's ADA Advisory Board, said it's not right that just a handful of the downtown stops are accessible to the estimated 600,000 disabled Chicagoans.
He said the city has so much to offer, like the Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park, but both of those attractions are out of reach for the disabled relying on CTA trains.
"There is absolutely no stop on Wabash. Millennium Park is right there, I mean think about it. You'd think they would make Randolph accessible," said Watkins, who uses a motorized scooter.
The CTA declined repeated requests to answer questions, including how it selected key stations and which stops will be made accessible. [Beachwood partner] ChicagoTalks obtained minutes from a 1995 meeting of the CTA's ADA Advisory Committee that indicate transit officials did consult with advocates for the disabled, as required by law.
In the early 1990s after the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect, the CTA had to designate certain "key stations" that would be fully accessible to the disabled.
The criteria to be considered included: how many customers used the station, whether it was a transfer point and if it served "major activity centers" like government centers and hospitals or "major interchange points" like airports.
Still, multiple stations that appear to fit many of the criteria still aren't key. For example, at both Belmont and Fullerton - stops that are transfer points for the Red, Purple and Brown Lines and rank among the six busiest stops out of all 144 stations - there is no handicap accessibility. The CTA is currently renovating both stations and promises that both stops will be fully accessible by Jan. 1, 2010.
Kevin Irvine, chairman of the CTA's ADA Advisory Committee, said the transit system deserves some credit for its work on making train stations more accessible and he understands why some stops were designated "key" while others were not.
"The [ADA] doesn't spell out exactly what the accessibility process is, and the law doesn't say that every station with high ridership has to be key; they chose based on priority," Irvine said.
"The CTA was looking for as many stations as possible they could make key that would fit the law's criteria. But making a station accessible is a very costly endeavor."
One exception allowed under the ADA helps older mass-transit systems like the CTA by exempting a station from being made accessible if it would pose a financial burden.
That's why the three Wabash stations in the Loop at Randolph, Madison and Adams aren't accessible. The stops, built in 1896 according to the Web site Chicago-l.org, have undergone renovations in the past, but none since the ADA became law nearly 20 years ago.
Attorney Barry Taylor, legal advocacy director for the disability rights group Equip for Equality, said the CTA has taken full advantage of the ADA exception. Because of that, he said, the system has a long way to go to become fully accessible.
"I think there are two major barriers to full accessibility on the CTA: One, the ADA doesn't require that all existing train stations be accessible, and when things aren't required, they don't usually happen," Taylor said.
"And two, we have a very old train system that was completely inaccessible when it was originally built."
A review of the approximately 2,000 ADA-related complaints the CTA received from Jan. 1, 2004, through Feb. 28, 2009, shows that some riders don't understand why more of the city's train stations aren't accessible, while others question the transit system's commitment to the disabled.
"Why is the Spaulding entrance [at the Kedzie Brown Line station] not wheelchair accessible? A simple ramp couldn't have been built? After all these years, the CTA is still as stupid as ever," an unidentified customer says in an e-mail sent to the CTA in September 2006.
Another customer in March 2007 writes, "Being a disabled person and using my electric scooter on the Blue Line to make my appointments at Hines V.A. Hospital has been a bad experience. Twice the elevators at Clark & Lake have been down and forced me to go to the Jackson stop, which is a long way and it was cold out. The first time the elevator was out about two weeks waiting for a part. The last time I do not know how long it was out of order but again waiting for a part and another cold trip to Jackson stop. The elevators seem fairly new so how can they break that often?"
And a tourist in town visiting a relative in August 2008 complains of the "nasty memory" of finding the elevator broken at the Red Line's Chicago station, which the customer notes is listed by the CTA as being accessible.
"It was out of order and actually looked as if it hadn't been open for quite a while. I tried calling the phone numbers on the elevator entry wall for info about help, but the call was transferred several times with no answer. We ended up carrying the wheelchair down all the stairs, with the help of other out-of-towners," the unidentified customer says in an e-mail.
"We want to draw your attention to that station and its inaccessibility. It is a huge problem. It is a shame that you have . . . stations advertised as accessible that are not. We had done our homework, checked the maps, plotted our routes and were thwarted by the broken-down elevator."
Irvine says more complaints like these could lead to improvements by the CTA.
"An issue is getting people to realize that their feedback is critically important in making the system better," Irvine said.
"If [the CTA] gets 20 complaints on a particular issue, they are aware that this is just more than an isolated problem and will require more than an isolated solution."
Elizabeth Czupta contributed to this report.
Contact: Eli Kaberon
* "Investigation Finds Handicapped Accessibility Issues Plague CTA." By Zach Wilmes
Posted on May 12, 2009
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