A number of metropolitan transit officials are starting to realize the financial burden they say will be created by a federally mandated program designed to improve access to public transportation for those with physical disabilities.

Officials in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston said the Americans with Disabilities Act, while necessary, was not written with cost in mind. They said they expect several billion dollars of public debt will be needed within the next five to 10 years to comply with the regulations.

Officials in Boston, for example, last week announced it will cost about $1 billion to upgrade their transit system to meet the federal standards.

The program requires mass transportation facilities to upgrade rail cars, build wheelchair ramps, erect signs, and provide better service to those with hearing and sight handicaps. Authorities have until June 1, 1993, to make the improvements, unless a plan for compliance is drawn up.

Federal officials said funding for the mandated upgrades should not be a major issue.

"Since the majority of the metropolitan transit authorities receive federal aid, non-compliance is not expected to be a large problem," said Robert Ashby, deputy assistant general counsel for regulation and enforcement for the Federal Transit Authority. "Federal funds could be cut off."

In addition, Mr. Ashby said the act gives individuals the right to sue authorities for compliance and legal fees.

"The act doesn't concern itself with funding," he said. "It's totally up to the authority to figure out how to comply."

The disabilities legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa in 1989 and signed into law by President Bush in 1990, gave metropolitan transit authorities three years to upgrade their facilities.

"When the plan was adopted, there was really no concern about the cost," said Ira Laster, senior program coordinator of policy at the Federal Transit Authority. Officials at the Massachusetts Bay Rapid Transit Authority maintain the mandated improvements will cost at least $1 billion over the next 10 to 15 years.

Although there are provisions for an extension to comply with the legislation, James Ball, spokesman for the authority, said the agency is unsure how to fund the upgrades.

"The mandate will force us to make some very difficult choices," Mr. Ball said. "One project in danger would be the proposed extension to our commuter railways further into the suburbs of Boston."

"We have the oldest subway system in the United States, and it's going to be extremely difficult to improve our existing facilities for another 10 years because of these mandates," Mr. Ball said.

Mr. Ball said the authority has begun to install ramps for wheelchairs and signs for the hearing impaired, but will have "a very difficult time" meeting the 1993 deadline for the creation of fully accessible or "key" stations.

Edward Armendariz, finance director for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority, said the city has begun upgrading rapid transit facilities and has a step up on other authorities. The transit authority oversees the operations of commuter railroads, subways, and buses in the city and several surrounding New York counties.

"Our bus service already provides for the handicapped," Mr. Armendariz said. "It seems it will be more difficult to bring rapid transit up to code."

The New York subway system services 3.5 million people per day, and buses transport 1.6 million people daily, according to AnneMarie Romano, deputy director for capital programs for the New York City Transit Authority, a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"We budget for five-year periods." Ms. Romano said. "For 1992 through 1996, we will spend an estimated $115 million on compliance. Our trains are accessible, but the stations aren't."

Ms. Romano said that building elevators for subways will cost an additional $160 million over 20 years.

She said the authority does not foresee issuing public debt specifically for upgrades to the system. However, certain offerings may be expanded to fund improvements.

Officials at the Chicago Transit Authority, the second-largest transit authority in the country, said they are confounded by the reality of the situation.

"We really don't have a ballpark figure of what these programs will cost," said Rosemarie Gulley, director of media relations for the authority. "The largest problem with the program is there was absolutely no indication about how the funds would be generated."

"We have some very old stations," authority spokeswoman Nancy Isaac said. "To make them fully accessible to all citizens will require some stations to be eliminated, some rerouting of lines, and an almost complete overhaul of equipment."

Ms. Isaac said Chicago plans for 44 of the system's 145 stations to be key stations.

She said the Chicago system is required to have these stations in place by 1993 unless waivers are granted by the federal authority.

The act state that for authorities that have formulated a compliance plan, the extensionn would allow for the upgrades to continue until 2020, with two-thirds of the improvement completed by 2010.

Ms. Romano said New York City has decided to apply for an extension for compliance.

"Some systems don't need 20 or 30 years, though," said Harley Goldstrom, supervisor of accessibility for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority in San Francisco. "We figure we can be done with upgrade in five to eight years -- but not by 1993."

Mr. Goldstrom said the legislation was targeted toward the problem of trasportation in large Eastern cities, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority would need only "about $1.3 million for compliance."

The authority moves an average of 250,000 people per day in the San Francisco-Oakland area.

"The Federal Transit Authority has been giving the legislation a very strict reading," Mr. Goldstrom said. "The legislation was written from a very narrow perspective. The ideas and the plan are important; they just never told us how to pay for it all.

The Americans for Disabilities Act traces its origins to the National Council of the Handicapped, which was formed in the early 1970s to study the country's treatment of the handicapped. The council, which Mr. Laster said has been responsible for many improvements within the last 20 years, had by 1989 drafted legislation dealing with mass transportation.

The council's other projects have included the placement of blue handicapped signs on streets and public places; improved access to public facilities and restrooms; hearing aids in museums, theaters, and amusement parks; and an increase in large-print books for the visually impaired.

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