Thursday, December 18, 2008

Boston Beat: A Church Cracks in Boston...

The Old South Church on Boylston Street in Boston's Back Bay recently sustained a large and deleterious crack due to construction work outside. The work being done was a renovation to the MBTA's Copley Green Line Stop. The damage, although probably not irreversible has rocked the community, put a historic structure as risk, and muted (for the time being) the church's organ.

The renovation at the Copley T stop, specifically, at the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth where the church is located, was part of an effort to make the Boylston stop handicap accessible. The project, originally slated for completion in 2009, has been put on hold while stabilization and repair to the church is underway. According to the Old South Church
website, high pressure jet-grouting caused damaged the foundation and cracked the wall, ostensibly facing Dartmouth Street.

The accident has caused an uproar of sorts in the city leading to finger pointing toward the MBTA, to the contract, to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At the risk of political incorrectness, we shall wade into the ADA issue first. The MBTA is required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to make "key" stations accessible to those in a wheelchair. Other disabilities apply, but wheelchair accessibility is more costly than padding the platform edge for the blind. Since much of the outer reaches of the Red, Orange, and Blue lines are more modern or more easily renovated, it has been the Green Line that has given the MBTA the biggest headache for the updates. Much of it runs under landfill near historic structures like the Old South Church and the Public Library.

Once the nearly completed Kenmore Square renovation is finished, Hynes, Copley, Arlington, Government Center, Symphony, and Science Park will by the only non-surface stops (the Green line, being light rail runs at grade as a trolley at its westerly extensions) without handicap access. The surface stops, although not universally handicap accessible do not require costly elevator installation. Arlington has a renovation currently under way, but it, too, is near a historic church and its progress may be impeded by this event.

Sometimes under the threat of disability advocates, the MBTA has often plunged into these renovation projects with almost reckless abandon. How it goes about it will be addressed later. However, the decision to renovate Arlington side by side with Copley does raise eyebrows. It stands to reason that both are not "key" stations and the MBTA could have easily renovated one or the other to comply with the ADA.

Here's where it gets dicey. Many have seriously questioned the wisdom of making century old subways handicap accessible. It has been said that it makes no sense to mandate these updates when bus or van service can fill the gap. WMassP&I simply sees it as a safety issue. While Subway pushers are fairly rare, it is a lot easier, and more evil, to push a wheelchair into a track pit. Moreover, renovating some of these stations is just impossible. New York's MTA will almost certainly never make all 468 stations accessible. Many are too old, too close to building foundations or their platforms are too narrow. Combining the danger and the cost or just as likely impossibility, compliance beyond the bare requirements is simply prudent.

Now it must be noted that where new lines are being built, such as NYC's Second Avenue Subway or the Washington Metro, it is possible and necessary to include elevators and the necessary compliance with the ADA. Starting from a clean(er) slate the arguments about difficulty and even cost are mooted. Jackson Graham, the head of the Washington Transit Authority during Metro's construction tried to argue against elevators in the 1970's, but ultimately the fair argument won out that we should not knowingly exclude people just because of a disability. However, excluding while we build anew is not the same as rectifying what was not even a concern eons ago.

Still, the blame for the Old South Church's damage should not go for the ADA, really. We don't know how a court would rule on Copley Station's "key"-ness. The ADA Section 37.43 describes feasibility; given the geography, adding elevators may not have been feasibility. Finally, the act was signed by a small-gov't curmudgeon named George H.W. Bush. He felt that excluding people due to disability is wrong and it is. Outside the concerns listed here, the ADA is overall a very good thing. An unfunded mandate maybe, but still good.

The real blame, however, rests with the MBTA. They shoved this project through recklessly. The Old South Church, according to the Globe, opposed the elevator construction on its block for the very reasons that led to this situation. Across Dartmouth Street is a modern building, very probably better suited to handle the stresses of massive elevator construction outside. Additionally, with the damage to Old South, concern must be raised about the Public Library. The inbound platform, which does have a connection to the outbound, is accessed by an entrance near the historic Copley Square Central Branch. A new elevator is or was under construction there, too. However, it does have a more modern addition, which may have included supporting the older McKim designed structure.

Even if the repairs to the Church prove inexpensive, the delay in the project will be incredibly costly. There is talk that the MBTA may be forced to plug its crater in Dartmouth Street and move to the other side of the street. If that happens more studies, more planning, and more engineering will stretch the schedule out indefinitely. Given the infinite schedule Kenmore Square's renovation has taken on, it almost seems like that is the way the MBTA wants it.

Despite record debt (and debt service) and despite talking 20% of the state's sales tax (from the entire state), the MBTA insists on shabby planning and ridiculously expensive projects. Yes. Boston is probably one of the most difficult cities to engineer. Its soil and geography are often unstable and its still an old city with countless historic structures, utilities, streets, and more to navigate.

Keeping the costs out of control are a nice way for somebody's friends to keep their piece of the pie. However, as taxpayers paying for this mess, we find that the contractors doing this work are running away with almost all of the pie. In the meantime, we are stuck with a horribly unreliable transit system that still is not handicap accessible.

The saga of the Green Line is long and frustrating. When the subway it runs through first opened, it was the first in the United States. Since then it went from being a trolley tunnel to what is now called a Light Rail line. However, its quality has not improved with age. While much of the Orange and Red Lines were rebuilt, the Green Line has not. Its signaling system and tracks are laughably out of date and contribute to delays. A lack of cooperation with Boston and Brookline has left the surface stops without priority signaling at traffic intersections. Even on the newer Red and Orange lines, head ways are often too long for a city of Boston's size, a victim of bad budgeting. Boston's T shuts down at 12:30, a hour and a half before the bars close, which might encourage less people to drive.

The accessibility of the Green Line has caused other problems. When the new rail cars that are needed to complete accessibility were delivered, they derailed constantly. This led to a very public very costly battle between the MBTA and its vendor Italian manufacturer Breda. Track had to be fitted to prevent derailments. Why did not the MBTA better scrutinize Breda's trains? Maybe the track upgrades could have been avoided or at least done before the trains arrived. But no. Again costs escalated.

The Green Line is the most heavily ridden Light Rail Line in the United States. Recent gas price spikes and the slowing economy have ensured that people will ride it, but they deserve better. Gov. Patrick MUST include some serious structural and management reform at the "T" to get better service out of its system. MBTA Engineers need to consider the concerns the Old South Church had seriously before the damage is done. Even at the most cynical level, they planners hoping to bleed as much public money as possible, did not intend for this, but that greed caused it nonetheless. We expect a little bit of graft, but not at this scale and certainly not after what we experienced with the Big Dig.

Finally, this concerns all Bay Staters. Like the Big Dig, all residents of the Commonwealth pay for this. One percent of every taxable sale in Massachusetts goes into the MBTA's pocket. Even if it is never used by most of the population, we should demand that it does its job as close to budget and on schedule as is humanly possible.


HumanAble said...

Dear Matt,

The MBTA is creating systems-wide accessibility, finally, because its leaders have finally understood a fundamental concept: separate services equal unequal, segregated treatment. There is no way to fill the gap of having to separate from the stream of society just because society isn't yet ready to include you. The right to hop on and off the T belongs to everyone equally- and therefore, all stations are "key" stations, Matt- because people need to use them.

Matt, it's hard to believe that you, or anyone, is still comfortable with the idea that people who use wheelchairs should simply adapt themselves to historically prejudicial assumptions that their differences are simply too burdensome to accommodate. Or that wheelchair-using pedestrians should simply wait until "new lines' are built, before they can be equally integrated into the flow of social, economic and cultural human rights...

Most people who are wheelchair users joined that group later in life, not from birth. Even if you personally don't currently desire street-level access (and/or graded slopes when that is more feasible), it might be beneficial to look more deeply into the reality of impermanence - which equitably and inevitably affects all living beings.

Matt S. said...

I am simply quesioning some of the conventional wisdom. I do not think that people should accept without question that spending billions of dollars to upgrade a transportation infrastructure when it is unfeasible, as excused in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Still the MBTA jumps headlong into it barreling its way through.

Secondly, like many transit agencies the MBTA has acted more under legal pressure than altruism because money is and always has been tight.

Thirdly, the meat of my point was the MBTA's insistance, like many Massachusetts Public agencies to waste money. Making its system handicap accessible is NOT wasting it. Doing it badly and as a result threatening the OSC is facing irresponsible.

I am not indifferent to the plight of those in wheelchairs and frankly having an elevator is incredibly convenient for many people (I see far more seniors and strollers on "T" existing elevators than wheelchairs).

And no, not all stations are "key" stations. I am talking about the law, not a political position.

Finally, who benefits at all when the MBTA botches an accessibility project and the quality of the lines themselves and headways deteriorate and we still have no handicap station?

HumanAble said...

Thanks for your response, Matt, and what a great point you make regarding how technical solutions like elevators have beneficial consequences for a much larger group than simply the discrete group of individuals who absolutely require those advances in design!

I certainly respect the speculation that the planners for this project may have hoped “to bleed as much public money as possible,” and that the MBTA’s budget problems may have more to do with the MBTA’s insistence “on shabby planning and ridiculously expensive projects.”

If investigation leads to ultimate proof of these points, it will be of great benefit for the T-riding public and taxpayers. Have you expressed your concerns directly to the T leadership, so they have a fair chance to demonstrate whether they are currently able to respond forthrightly?

Now, you say that “renovating some of these stations is just impossible.” And, with regards to Copley Station, you’ve posed the question, “We don't know how a court would rule on Copley Station's "key"-ness. The ADA Section 37.43 describes feasibility…”

Robert Stoezel, Chief Transportation Officer for MBTA Railroad Operations, is quoted as saying, “Stations that have low ridership are not key stations. Only stations that have been identified as key stations will meet compliance.”

More specifics are offered in the PMT Stakeholder Advisory Committee Report (August 23, 2007, MBTA). Key station characteristics are defined as:

– Above-average ridership
– At the end of a line
– Intermodal connections
– Near business and retail centers
– Other factors

This document notes Kenmore, Copley, Arlington, Government Center, and State Street as Key Stations undergoing renovation, and states that there are 80 Key stations.

I would guess that most of us mourn the structural disaster to the beautiful and sacred Old South Church. I certainly do. However, the story that a root cause of this terrible calamity was because the MBTA is unreasonably complying with the ADA is a terrible and undue burden on those who continue to pay extra just to show up and be counted. Mainstream news and print has disseminated that unbalanced view, which perpetuates backwards, prejudicial assumptions that some people are normal-fitting (and belong) and others (that don’t fit well with old design) represent fiscal burdens on the rest of society.

The fact that the MBTA does not legally need to consider all stations to be “key stations” for the purpose of legally complying with the ADA is an example of how even the Americans With DisAbilities Act and the Department of Justice has continued to legalize segregation, failing to recognize the universal benefits that accrue when designers, planners and service providers are incentivized to create wholly inclusive solutions now.

(For example, a recent example of how the DOJ bends to the whims of static and exclusionary industry design practices is the proposed ADAAG (CRT Docket No. 105; AG Order No. 2967-2008), which came out this past summer and allowed public comment for an inordinately short period of time.)

So thank you, Matt, for asking me to read more carefully to see your support for the spirit of the ADA, etc. If we’re lucky, most of us will continue to be vital and active as Elders- yet structural and communications barriers will still survive 20 years from today.

I strongly believe that this is not due to economic burden or lack of architectural feasibility- it’s due to a lack of inclusive envisioning, practical and proactive far-sightedness- and, in this case, it appears to also be a good reminder that the MBTA and every public service entity should really take the time to find and retain the best and brightest designers for the job (right here in Boston is the Institute for Human-Centered Design- with an extraordinary track record of accomplishments).