ISELIN, N.J. — A massive, $1.7 billion federal program to make hundreds of old subway and commuter rail stations accessible to people with mobility issues — from those in wheelchairs to parents with kids in strollers — is moving forward, federal transportation officials say.

Named the “All Stations Accessibility Program” (ASAP), it was announced late last month on the 32nd anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act that required accessible, barrier-free construction of buildings and other public facilities.

ASAP would retrofit older subway, rail and light rail stations on 17 so-called “legacy” transit systems with stations built before the ADA and not covered by the law’s requirements.

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Federal officials explained the five-year-long program at virtual press briefing. It is funded by the Biden administration’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law signed last November.

It would provide $343 million annually in competitive grants administered by the Federal Transit Administration to tackle some of the 900 stations that are considered inaccessible.

NJ Transit is among those transit systems considered “legacy” because the railroads that made up the commuter rail system were built before the ADA became law. PATH, which runs between New Jersey and New York, is also listed as a legacy system in the FTA’s National Transit Data base, as is New York City’s sprawling subway system and Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

Retrofitting existing stations, many built during the early twentieth century, is both challenging and expensive. NJ Transit is spending $45 million on an ADA project to build high level platforms that people can step or roll a wheelchair directly on from a train, and to build elevators to street level at the Perth Amboy train station. That project was started earlier this year.

“This program is a big deal. It will allow more people to take advantage of rail and subway systems transit,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during the virtual press briefing recently. “It will help millions. People will be able to go to work, see their family. It means parents of adult children with disabilities will be given back hours in their day organizing transportation.”

Noting that one in seven Americans has a mobility-related disability, Buttigieg said the program “will ultimately be for all Americans” from people in wheelchairs, to those with temporary mobility issue due to surgery, to parents with strollers and others with luggage.

The program provides $343 million annually for five years through a competitive grant program that will require a 20% match from the agency, said Nuria Fernandez, FTA Administrator.

“We expect agencies with some of the nation’s oldest stations and dense cities to apply,” she said. “It’s about providing entry and access to all. Without access to transportation, people are cut off from economic opportunity.”

However, Fernandez said it’s hard to say how many of the 900 stations will be improved under the program.

“Even with what we know today, there may be more requests than funding available in this authorization,” she said. “It depends on where the station is and what the challenges are. Every station will be different.”

But the new dedicated funding “gets us started,” she said, and transit agencies could supplement the ASAP funding with other FTA formula funding and COVID-19 CARES Act funding for transit, she said.

The deadline for transit agencies to apply is September 30.

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