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How a long commute in a wheelchair shows the need for more accessibility; but how can it be funded?

CITY HALL PARK, Lower Manhattan — By the MTA's own admission, the New York City subway system is plagued with problems that are in significant need of fixing. However, worse than the delays, the crumbling stations and the broken subway car air conditioners is the fact that nearly one in nine potential subway customers can't fully access the subway system.

That was the conclusion of a new report from the city comptroller, released Tuesday, which also called for ways to increase accessibility and suggested some ways to fund it. Those funding sources may not be so easy for taxpayers and legislators to swallow.

Still, they are important, as the commute of transit accessibility advocate Chris Pangilinan underscored. Rather than take 10 to 15 minutes riding the subway a few stops between Bowling Green and City Hall to attend the comptroller's news conference on Tuesday morning, he had to steer his wheelchair, by hand, for nearly a mile to the event.

That's because the elevator at the Bowling Green subway station was broken, prohibiting his access to the 4 and 5 trains that would have taken him to City Hall. There's another subway stop, Whitehall Station, just 200 feet from Bowling Green, but because it has no elevator, Pangilinan's only choice was to self-propel uptown, which is a workout in any case, but even worse in 90-plus degree heat.

"It's exhausting," the very fit transit advocate told PIX11 News.

He made it to the comptroller's news conference without breaking a sweat. However, the news that Comptroller Scott Stringer delivered could leave some New Yorkers hot under the collar.

His staff's research concluded that even though 122 city neighborhoods are served by the subway system, more than half of them -- 62 -- have no accessibility for physically challenged people. Almost all of the neighborhoods with no access, the report concluded, are in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.

"We are defining these areas as ADA deserts," Comptroller Stringer said. "People are stranded there."

Joining him at the news conference were Pangilinan and another transit accessibility advocate, Valerie Joseph of the Brooklyn Center for the Disabled

"I'm hopeful that 100 percent accessibility will be coming through," she said.

By contrast, Washington, D.C.'s public rail transportation system has full disabled access, and, according to the comptroller's study, Boston and Chicago have more than the five boroughs of New York do.

The new Fast Forward plan from New York City Transit President Andy Byford aims to make 50 more stations accessible in five years. However, to raise the projected $19 billion that it will take to make that happen, and to keep improving accessibility, Stringer said that it will require some possibly bitter pills for taxpayers, and the city and state legislators elected by them, to swallow.

"Congestion pricing," Stringer suggested as a funding stream, and also added, "We have to look at a transportation bond act."

Both are measures that would ultimately cost residents.

However, Pangilinan pointed out at the comptroller's news conference, "In the 1980s, when the subway was falling apart and full of graffiti, the city and state came together and brought it back to where it is today. We have that same issues for people with disabilities."

The MTA said, in a statement, "New York City Transit has never been more committed to an accessible transit system than it is right now. President Byford has hired the system’s first-ever accessibility chief, and his Fast Forward Plan includes a roadmap to dramatically expand subway accessibility, with customers no more than two stations away from an accessible station within five years, and continued elevator installations after that. We’re also bolstering our completely accessible bus network, and we’re undertaking an overhaul and modernization of Access-a-Ride – all of which will lead to dramatic accessibility improvements.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo had expressed skepticism over the Fast Forward plan at first, but had more recently indicated support. He has not been clear as to how the plan will get funded.

For his part, Pangilinan had to wheel himself back nearly a mile to his office after the comptroller's event.

As he crossed Broadway on his return to his office building at Bowling Green, a box truck ran a red light, nearly running over the accessibility advocate in his wheelchair.

Pangilinan said the near-miss underscored the need for accessibility improvements. Earlier, at his news conference, the comptroller agreed, saying that the state legislature needs to introduce the transportation bond act that voters could decide on in a referendum.

The last time such a measure was put before voters was in 2005, when they chose to raise $3.5 billion for public transportation.

"I’m not politically naive," the comptroller said. "We can't keep playing checkers with mass transit. We have to come to Albany and play chess and get something accomplished, or we will actually be here at another press conference a year or two from now."