MTA Acting Chairman Janno Lieber’s statement at his New York State Senate confirmation hearing prior to being officially confirmed as permanent MTA Chairman was, “We are a transportation agency, reopening subway station restrooms is not a priority” is disappointing. I guess when riding the subways, he has never had the urge to go. Perhaps his bladder is stronger than most riders or he wears Depends to and from work. Thousands of subway or commuter rail riders who utilize existing restrooms on a daily basis would disagree with Lieber.
Long Island Rail Road restrooms at Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal, Jamaica Station and dozens of other stations are open. Metro North Rail Road Grand Central Terminal and dozens of other stations are open. Staten Island Railway passengers have direct access to both the New York City Department of Transportation Staten Island Ferry St. George and Whitehall Street Ferry Terminal restrooms. Perhaps Lieber forgot that his colleague, then New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg in June 2021 said she would like to reopen NYC Transit subway station bathrooms as quickly as possible. This never happened.
There are 76 existing bathrooms at New York City Transit’s 472 subway stations. Until the early 1960’s subway riders respected authority. There was a 10-cents fee to use station bathrooms. That generation of riders did not litter subway stations or buses, leaving behind gum, candy wrappers, paper cups, bottles and newspapers. They didn’t spit, urinate or defecate on subway platforms or cars. Pre-COVID-19 riders were always reluctant to use subway station bathrooms, even when available. Many stations had no working facilities or were closed. No one wanted to deal with the lack of toilet paper, soap or hot water, unhinged doors to stalls or finding a mess left behind by the previous patron. Who wanted to find others using it as a safe place for consumption of drugs or sex?
Homeless people afraid to go to shelters end up using the bathroom sink to shower in an attempt to maintain hygiene. Why not assign a matron to each male and female bathroom? Install security cameras to provide protection for both employees and riders who use bathrooms. Ask any local business, college or hospital to adopt an adjacent station bathroom to help cover the costs of staffing. In exchange, give the sponsor free advertising space at the station. If necessary, charge a nominal fee to use the facility. Reopening secure, safe subway station bathrooms with adequate supplies of toilet paper, soap and hot water would be one way to attract several million former pre-COVID-19 riders who have yet to return. Access to a public restroom is a basic human right.
Surely, within the $51 billion 2020-24 Five Year Capital Plan funding can be found to reopen the existing 76 NYC Transit subway system bathrooms. Bringing more subway stations into compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act should also include construction of restroom facilities at those stations lacking such amenities. The MTA was eligible for $1.5 billion in funding from the Federal Transit Administration in 2021. This will grow by several hundred million more in 2022. The MTA historically has allocated 70 percent of these annual federal funds for New York City Transit. Why doesn’t the MTA add functioning restrooms to the New York City Transit Capital Program and use federal funds to pay for these improvements?
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer, who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.