SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A class accused the Bay Area’s public transit system on Wednesday of denying people with disabilities full and equal access by failing to properly maintain, repair and clean elevators “soiled” with human waste.
Lead plaintiff Senior and Disability Action says the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, or BART, has for decades provided “vastly inferior” service to disabled riders.
“This class action seeks to end the systemic civil rights violations committed by the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) against people with mobility disabilities who use wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility aids, and who rely on elevators or escalators in order to access BART’s stations and services,” the 34-page complaint states.
The suit claims disabled riders constantly encounter broken and soiled elevators, out-of-order escalators and non-functioning accessible fare gates. It also accuses BART of failing to provide adequate notice of elevator outages, accessible paths of travel, transportation alternatives and evacuation plans for those with mobility challenges.
BART responded in a statement Wednesday that it shares in the goal of ensuring accessible public services and understands hardships faced by disabled riders. The transit agency cited a $16.3 million escalator and elevator improvement program currently underway, adding it has also devoted $190 million to improve access for downtown San Francisco stations.
Since October 2015, BART has had more than 2,500 elevator outages during normal operating hours, according to agency data cited in the complaint.
The disability rights advocates say the vast majority of outages are due to a “consistent failure to adequately maintain the accessible features” and that the agency also fails to provide “effective, reliable, or well-publicized alternate accessible transportation” for disabled riders.
BART claims most elevator outages are due to an ongoing floor replacement project, set to be completed in May 2017. It says the project, “while time-consuming, results in a much more sanitary environment and prolongs the period of time between outages and major overhauls.”
But the disabled rights advocates say that when elevators do function properly, they are often contaminated by the presence of human feces or urine. This forces disabled riders to go to another station or “roll through human waste” to reach their final destination, the plaintiffs claim.
“This is an especially repugnant prospect for users of manual wheelchairs, whose hands, arms, and clothes inevitably come in contact with the wheels of their wheelchairs,” the complaint states.
Despite hiring extra crews and offering overtime to help keep stations clean, BART said its riders “continue to unacceptably experience the impact of the homeless crisis.” BART is working with local agencies to address the issue, adding that it is one of the only transit systems in the nation with a full-time crisis intervention training coordinator and community outreach liaison to work on those issues.
The transit agency also says it provides a shuttle service for disabled patrons when station elevators are out of service. But the plaintiffs argue that the service is not well publicized, and that riders are not informed how long they will have to wait for it.
In 1998, BART settled a previous disability rights class action – Cupolo v. BART – by vowing to replace or rehab defunct elevators, perform regular maintenance and repairs, distribute reliable information on elevator outages and execute a rigorous system for elevator inspections and cleanings.
Under that plan, elevators were to be cleaned twice per day, and janitors were to clean fouled elevators within 30 minutes of being informed of a problem.
“Although conditions temporarily improved following this settlement, BART has since allowed the condition of its elevators and other accessibility features, as well as its policies and practices regarding access for people with mobility disabilities, to return to their pre-Cupolo conditions,” the complaint states.
BART does offer a text alert service for elevator outages, but the agency often fails to provide updated and accurate information, which forces disabled riders to be late for work meetings, appointments and social engagements, according to the suit.
The lawsuit accuses the public transit system of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, Rehabilitation Act and state anti-discrimination laws.
The plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction to place BART under the supervision of an independent monitor to ensure full and adequate implementation of a plan to maintain accessible accommodations for disabled passengers.
Other plaintiffs named in the suit include the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco, Concord resident Pi Ra, and Oakland resident Ian Smith.
The plaintiffs are represented by Rebecca Williford of Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley and Jimmy Kim of Legal Aid At Work in San Francisco.
“We share the frustration of the Disability Rights Advocates legal group, but are disappointed our program of capital improvement is being met with litigation,” BART said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we hope to again work together in the future as we value the perspective of people with disabilities both from within our own employee community and the cities we serve.”
With a $1.24 billion operating budget and an average of 440,000 rides a week, BART manages 46 stations and more than 100 miles of above-ground and subterranean train tracks, including the Transbay Tube, which runs under and across the San Francisco Bay.