In early September, Downtown Jersey City resident Marc Frydman was out for an evening jog when he was struck by an out-of-control speeding car on Grand Street. While he says he feels lucky he even survived, the accident destroyed a ligament in one of his knees; it had to be surgically reconstructed. Frydman says he made all sorts of preparations for his recovery after surgery, from stocking up on food to getting a haircut, but there was one aspect of life after the knife that he was wholly unprepared for.
“It never occurred to me that my biggest obstacle would be the lack of elevator facilities at the Grove Street PATH station,” he says. “This is something that able-bodied people don’t even notice.”
In the grand scheme of things, as he is quick to point out, Frydman was fortunate. He only had to navigate this system on crutches, not in a wheelchair or other device, and he only had to do it for a short — and finite — amount of time. (For more from Frydman, check out the two diaries he wrote for us about his commute.)
But thousands of others, like Paulus Hook resident Peter Gimbel, are not so lucky. Gimbel suffers from muscular dystrophy, and as a result, he uses a wheelchair at all times, including when he uses the PATH several times each week. Gimbel has become so frustrated by the PATH’s lack of access that he recently joined a lawsuit seeking more accommodations for disabled persons.
The Port Authority Builds a New Entrance, and a Lawsuit is Born
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns and operates the PATH system, provides access for the disabled at seven of its 13 stations, including the system’s five terminals. The accessible stations are Journal Square, Exchange Place, Pavonia/Newport, Hoboken, Newark, 33rd Street and World Trade Center. At these stations, PATH riders can make use of elevators, fare turnstiles that allow for access by a wheelchair or other mobility aid, platforms with ceramic or tactile edges for the visually impaired, and wheelchair-accessible passenger information phones and public payphones.
The rest of the PATH stations do not have elevators; mobility-impaired riders wishing to board or exit at these stations cannot do so. Almost all of these stations feature entrances and exits built long before the 1990 passage of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that any newly constructed or significantly altered public transportation facilities include access for the disabled.
However, the Grove Street station lacks accessibility despite modern construction. In 2001, the Port Authority began planning an expansion of the increasingly busy Downtown Jersey City station. Construction started in late 2003, and in May 2005, the agency opened a new entrance to the station at the corner of Marin Boulevard and Christopher Columbus Drive.
But the glass-enclosed entrance, which cost $12.5 million to build, was lacking something: an elevator.
“It is such an obvious need that I’m convinced it was thought of by the Port Authority and decided against,” Frydman says. “To construct a new entrance for a neighborhood that sees over 10,000 commuters a day, and to decide against installing an elevator — or at least an escalator along the sides of the wide steep staircase — is atrocious. Even worse is the thought that this obvious necessity could have been an oversight.”
Not long after the station was opened, the nonprofit group Heightened Independence and Progress (HIP) noticed the station’s inaccessibility, and contacted the Port Authority. HIP runs the Hudson County Center for Independent Living, which provides a variety of services to Gimbel and others in the disabled community. HIP’s Hudson director Kathy Wood says she was told by the agency that they didn’t think they had to make the station accessible, because it did not fall under the designation of being a “key” station.
The ADA mandated that existing key stations be made accessible by 1993; but non-key stations didn’t have to be brought up to ADA standards until 2010. But advocates for the disabled say that only applies to existing stations; all alterations — ie, new station entrances — after the act was passed are required to meet the standards, regardless of the key/non-key designation.
So HIP, along with the United Spinal Association, filed an administrative complaint with the Federal Transit Administration in March 2006. After no action was taken on the complaint, which was later withdrawn, the organizations in May 2007 filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court against the Port Authority. The suit alleges that the agency violated the ADA — as well as New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, its New Jersey Handicap Access Law and its Uniform Construction Code Act — when it constructed the new entrance, and it seeks to force the agency to provide disabled access — via an elevator — at the station.
“There’s no question that both New Jersey and federal law requires this entrance to be accessible,” United Spinal Association general counsel James Weisman said at the time.
At the Port Authority’s request, the case was moved to federal district court, where the agency quickly filed a motion to dismiss the suit. This motion as well as a second were overruled; the case is currently in the discovery process and will go to a jury trial sometime next year if it is not settled before then. On May 1, HIP and United Spinal Association filed an amended complaint that included Peter Gimbel as a plaintiff.
Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico says the agency “worked with several groups representing people with disabilities in New York and New Jersey” when deciding which stations it would ultimately make accessible, but he offers no further explanation as to why the new Grove Street entrance wasn’t built in accordance with ADA standards. However, he says, the Grove Street station will be made accessible as part of a ten-year “PATH modernization plan” laid out in 2006; $100 million has been allocated to lengthen the station’s platforms to accommodate 10-car trains and bring it up to ADA standards.
To the disabled and their advocates, the renovation and potential ADA compliance on the horizon is welcome news, but to some that have to deal with Grove Street’s lack of access, it is a case of too little, too late.
“A plan should have been made to make the station accessible to wheelchair users” from the start, says attorney Rob Stulberg, a partner at Broach & Stulberg, the law firm representing Gimbel and HIP.
“I don’t understand why the station wasn’t made wheelchair accessible when the new entrance was built,” he says. “It seems as if PATH just forgot about wheelchair users.”