The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is addressing both the climate crisis and need for accessible transportation, both of which disproportionately effect people with disabilities. DOT is creating avenues for cleaner and more accessible transportation through legislative funding and providing grants for improvements and grants to fund innovative technologies.
With 32 years since the passing of the Americans wit Disabilities Act (ADA), barriers to accessible rail transportation remain widespread in the US. An estimated 900 rail stations that serve millions of passengers were built before 1990. These legacy stations do not meet required standards of ADA accessibility.
A prime example of the need for accessible rail stations can be found in a previous article in ABILITY Magazine, “All Riders”, outlining not only the great human need, but the expanse of the problem of inaccessible public transport in New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Less than 25% of MTA public rail stations are accessible. Further, a portion of those accessible stations have elevators that are closed for repair. This presents an even greater need and risk of injury for passengers.
President Biden and the DOT hope to remedy this severe shortfall with the All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP). As part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, ASAP aims to help eliminate barriers to public rail stations and assist legacy stations in meeting or exceeding ADA standards.
Legacy stations will apply for funding geared toward transforming or upgrading these stations to meet or exceed ADA standards for serving individuals with mobility disabilities, including wheelchair users. The goal is to increase the number of accessible public rail systems across the country that were built prior to the enactment of the ADA.
In addition to ASAP, the US DOT recently awarded $2 million in innovation grants to organizations who won the Inclusive Design Challenge. First place was Perdue University who was awarded $1 million for developing an automated vehicle that incorporates universal design features to accommodate people with physical and sensory disabilities. Second place went to AbleLink Smart Living Technologies’ WayFinder ADS that enables independent use of autonomous vehicles by individuals with cognitive and other disabilities. The University of Maine took third place for its Autonomous Vehicle Assistant (AVA) that assists passengers with visual impairments and older adults with ride-hailing and trip planning.
ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to discuss the DOT’s continued commitment to accessibility as well as plans for climate friendly changes we can expect from DOT’s work.
Cooper: You made a comment recently, which was kind of a fun comment, about the capability of President Biden riding a bike. Maybe we can start with electric bikes and sustainable energy?
Pete Buttigieg: One thing we’re trying to support is active transportation. We need to make sure that people are able to walk or bike or roll to wherever they need to be. I think that’s something that has been maybe more familiar for people living in city centers or dense urban areas, but it can bring benefit everywhere in the country. When we adopted a Fleet Streets approach in my hometown of South Bend, for example, that really opened up what had been a road pattern that was almost hostile to any traffic besides vehicles. It opened that up to people, and through that to small business, too because it became a more inviting place to have a cup of coffee or browse a store.
All of these things add up to a more vibrant local economy, and they add up to more ease for people getting to where they need to go, especially when you start from the principle of safety. That’s really what’s on our minds as we work to make active transportation available to more Americans, and many of our grant programs do just that.
E-bikes hold the promise of making it more natural for a lot of people to commute to work by bike. I think that they present an opportunity in terms of people who maybe don’t think of themselves as athletes or aren’t able to bike longer distances on a traditional bike to now have a new means to get around. Again, safety has to be our guiding principle, so local communities, I think, are dealing with the necessity of managing the shared spaces and just the rule of the road in a way that is safe because these e-bikes can go obviously faster, not just farther, than traditional bicycles. But we see a lot of potential there, and we want to support local community visions for how they want to put these technologies to use.
Cooper: Are you looking to build a national charging network with universal standards?
Buttigieg: Our electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure program, where we’re distributing $5 billion to states to establish a car-charging network along our highways, as well as a companion program called community charging, which is another $2.5 billion, they do carry standards. We don’t want to dictate, of course, all of the particulars of charging stations that will typically be owned and operated by the private sector, but we do need to make sure certain things are true about them. We need to make sure that you are not, for example, confined to an individual network in order to be able to purchase power from a given charging station. Right now, that’s often the case. So, it’s as if you could only fill up at a Speedway gas station if you were a Speedway member, but not if you were a BP member. We need to make these interoperable. And accessibility is one of the considerations that’s going into this as well. As we work with our counterparts in the Department of Energy to lay out the requirements and expectations for the states in their investments, we’ll be, within reason, laying out some standards and expectations for how those chargers ought to work.
Cooper: You’ve been traveling around the country talking about and showcasing electric trucks, maybe trains and ships running on sustainable energy?
Buttigieg: Yeah, the great thing about this role and the daunting thing about this moment is that we need to be delivering improvements to every mode of transportation in the country. We have provisions in this new infrastructure law that touch everything from commercial aviation to pipeline safety. We’re administering a pipeline safety improvement program that’s not getting as much attention as the other things, but it just gives you a sense of the range of what we do. We work on commercial space travel, port improvements—anything related to how people or goods move around, we tend to have some role in it. What we’re very proud of in this infrastructure deal is the opportunity to make more improvements than we have in certainly my lifetime, everything from the ASAP program that we’re rolling out next week, to improvements to stations across the country for train station accessibility to the airport terminal program, which also, by the way, did a lot for accessibility. A lot of ADA improvements are coming to airports around America now through this funding, and we’re proud to be able to bring that to communities of different sizes.
Cooper: I saw that at LAX, it will finally be an airport worthy of our country. I’m sure you’ve traveled around the world, many international airports are way ahead of us.
Buttigieg: Right. By many measures, the U.S. doesn’t have a single airport in the world’s top 25. We want to change that. The President definitely wants to change it. Before we even get to the finer points of the aesthetics of it, we just need to make sure they work well, and that they work well for everybody. So, this round of terminal grants alone, in those 84 different airports, we were able to make a difference. There are big, recognizable ones like LAX all the way down to Chamberlain, South Dakota, where their general aviation terminal right now is a mobile home. In places in between, like Huntsville, Alabama, will get new, better restrooms and finally be able to get ADA compliance in areas where they haven’t before.
Cooper: Have you looked at anything to give a discount, let’s say, to people who are low-income who would like to get electric, maybe a power discount or grant for junkers to remove these cars from the streets? There was Cash for Clunkers once.
Buttigieg: Yeah, there was a Cash for Clunkers program I think during the Obama administration. The approach that we’ve pursued had to do with reducing the upfront sticker price of EVs through tax credits. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of congressional mostly Republican opposition to that. But we are seeing that the scale effects are starting to pull down the cost of EVs, too. The cost of charging is a little different because it’s in the hands of utilities, and there are 3,000 different utilities across the country. But we’re certainly interested to see what kinds of approaches will be taken locally.
For example, you know, I used to run a utility as mayor. I oversaw the water works, and one of the uses that my successor put rescue plan dollars to was to reduce or forgive utility bills for low-income residents on their water charges. So, there are ways this can be done. It varies from state to state, and it gets a little difficult for us from a federal level on the transportation side of the house to have all the visibility into that. But we’re certainly interested in approaches that will make the charging as well as purchasing electric vehicles more affordable for more Americans.
Cooper: What about charging vehicles at home or at an apartment?
Buttigieg: I think that a lot of folks don’t realize that you can often charge a vehicle with a regular wall plug. Frankly, that’s what Chasten and I do in Michigan with our plug-in hybrid, although it’s quicker and more efficient if you can get a level 2 charger. But that only helps you if you live in a single-family home, where you have a garage.
A lot of people in multi-family dwellings are also living in areas where it’s not yet profitable for a company to install a charger, for example, in the parking lot of your apartment building. That’s where we think the community charging funding that we’ll be distributing can make a difference. We’d buy down the difference, where it doesn’t pencil out just yet for the private sector, but when we get that charger up in helps drive adoption and it helps, of course, people get in on the fuel savings that come with owning a vehicle.
Cooper: Is that part of your budget now?
Buttigieg: Yes, that’s budgeted for this fiscal year, the first of five years, which across five years it’ll be $2.5 billion. That’ll go alongside the $5 billion. So, about $1 billion a year that’s going to the states for their own plans. Those are more for building out the network of chargers across the U.S. highway system.
Cooper: That’s good to know. I hope landlords and apartment complexes know about this. You’ve got to get that message out that that’s available.
Buttigieg: Well, you can help us. We’re working with communities to make sure they know that they can apply for this funding as soon as we get the notice out.
Cooper: Is there anything that you could share that is so different than what you expected when you accepted this position?
Buttigieg: You know, we do everything from overseeing the Academy for Merchant Mariners in Kings Point, New York, to licensing commercial space launches. I think everybody knows we’re the department of trains, planes, and automobiles, but even I am repeatedly struck by the sheer range of things we get to work on. They’re all important. They’re all exciting. There’s never been a better time to do this work.
Cooper: I noticed you’re traveling a lot. I know time is of the essence when you’re traveling and you’ve got a tight schedule, but how are you managing that and also thinking about your travel as another form of pollution?
Buttigieg: We’re trying to strike an appropriate balance in terms of our own travel and just how I get around the city. One idea that I–to be honest stole from Secretary Granholm–is to convert one of my security details to an electric car so that I can get around D.C. on a zero-emissions basis. But of course, part of my job is to travel and to be in lots of different places at once. We want to see and feel and experience what’s happening on the ground so that we make the best possible decisions as we guide what will ultimately be half of the $1.2 trillion of the President’s infrastructure plan.
Cooper: I know your time is short. Let me quickly share my screen. We do several things. If you ever need actors, let’s say you’re producing a PSA, I hope that someone in your organization can access abilityE.com. This is the first major talent resource for actors and performers with disabilities for the entertainment industry.
Buttigieg: Oh, perfect!
Cooper: And we’re excited that your team at DOT joined us for our last ABILITY Job Fair. This is the most accessible online career fair, which includes face-to-face between recruiters and job seekers but also opens to sign language interpreters whenever needed. So, DOT is doing the right thing and looking to hire talent with disabilities for all the growth that you’re involved in right now.
Buttigieg: Great! We definitely need that talent on board. I’m glad we’re partnering with you to get the word out.