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BART’s broken elevators mean broken promises for disabled

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A BART elevator platform is seen at Powell Street Station ion Wednesday in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Just as BART announced the opening of Warm Springs Station, I sat in my wheelchair at Powell Station wondering if the elevator doors would open at all — they didn’t.

The Powell elevator, one of the system’s most used and most broken, was again out of service. Whether it was out for the moment or out for the count, no one could say. At rush hour, there was no station agent to ask. BART’s website listed seven broken elevators but offered no details. I gave up and rolled down Market Street.

In early April, Bay Area disability and senior advocacy groups filed a class-action law suit against BART, charging long-standing neglect of elevators, escalators and the access both provide. The lawsuit targets a hidden crisis: The burning issue for people with disabilities is employment, downtown San Francisco has the region’s highest concentration of jobs, and more people head to work via the BART/Muni stations along Market Street then anywhere else in the Bay Area.

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BART’s downtown elevators play a disproportionate role in providing disabled access to jobs. When they’re broken, they become a major impediment. There’s nothing like heading to Embarcadero Station, where an elevator has just failed, backtracking to BART’s Montgomery Station, whose elevators are closed for floor replacement … and finally surfacing at Powell and rolling a wheelchair down Market Street. Variations on this scenario happen to me often. On bad days, elevators in three out of four of San Francisco’s downtown BART stations can be out of action.

Homeless people frequent these same stations, and elevators are often stained with urine or worse. BART staff tackle cleaning with admirable, Sisyphean effort. A partial remedy involves replacing elevator floors. BART has been doing this, station by station.

Unfortunately, floor repair doesn’t address the mechanical unsoundness of old and battered components, like elevator doors. Tone-deaf work scheduling also doesn’t help. Why shut Montgomery’s elevator in a high-rise office district for a week to fix floors during the rainy season? Does anyone at BART talk to groups like San Francisco’s Independent Living Resource Center?

Then, there’s signage. BART and Muni share the same elevators, and both proclaim outages on hand-scrawled whiteboards. The latter are frequently out-of-date and contradict electronic signs near the station entrances. And no sign explains how people in wheelchairs, families with strollers or anyone else should actually use BART’s downtown station elevators. The secret involves a Byzantine route in and out of the fare control system. For tourists and visitors, this is beyond comprehension.

Fixing BART access won’t be easy or cheap. The system was designed decades before the Americans With Disabilities Act, and federal transit funding has long favored new construction over old maintenance. Still, if BART has a future, reliable access must be part of it.

Paul Bendix is a writer who lives in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood.

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