NEW YORK (AP) – When Michael Harris powered his motorized wheelchair off the No. 5 subway train in Brooklyn last week, he encountered a familiar sight. The elevator to the street was broken.

Stranded, the 22-year-old turned to a station agent for help and was told to try backtracking three stops to the next-closest station with a working lift. From there, he could catch a bus.

Frustrated, Harris dialed 911 instead.

A team of firefighters soon arrived to hoist his 300-pound wheelchair to the surface. They carried Harris out on a gurney, “like the ones they use to carry dead bodies out of burning buildings,” he said.

To many, the episode might seem like an overreaction, but Harris said was simply fed up with repeated breakdowns and unhelpful workers in a subway system that is barely wheelchair-friendly to begin with.

“The maintenance is terrible,” said Harris, a coordinator for an advocacy group called the Disabled Riders Coalition. “If you’re stuck on a platform with no way to get out, what if there’s a fire?”

Like other big transit agencies, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been working for nearly two decades to make its century-old subway system accessible to people with disabilities, but activists say the effort has been both slow and fraught with problems.

Today, just 55 of the system’s 468 subway stations are considered wheelchair-accessible.

In stations that do have ramps and lifts, equipment failures are routine. A report released in August said the elevators in Manhattan’s 23 accessible stations experienced 3,374 service outages between 2002 and 2005.

In 2005, the average elevator was out-of-service for a cumulative 13 days, according to the report, prepared by the office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

New York City Transit spokeswoman Deidre Parker said the agency is doing what it can to change a system built during an era when people gave little thought to accommodating people with disabilities.

By law, the MTA plans must have at least 100 key stations fully wheelchair-accessible by 2020. Parker said the authority is on track to meet that target, although it won’t be easy or cheap.

Many of the stations are labyrinthine affairs, twisted around building foundations, intersecting tunnels and utility lines. Installing even a single elevator can be exceedingly expensive.

Vandalism of existing elevators is a major problem too, Parker said. Vagrants and drunks frequently use the compartments as toilets (or worse) – a problem officials have tried to address by making most new elevator shafts out of glass.

When elevators do break down, the MTA has a 24-hour rapid response team to make repairs.

The authority also maintains a telephone information line with a list of outages, but Parker acknowledged that some passengers still occasionally find themselves stranded unexpectedly.

“I’m sure that for someone who is disabled and depends on these elevators, once is too much,” she said.

Parker said evacuations of stranded passengers by firefighters is rare.

The problems wheelchair riders experience in New York have been echoed in other cities with old public transit systems.

In Boston, activists sued in 2002 over broken elevators and inaccessible stations for trains and buses run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA settled the suit in April by agreeing to spend more than $310 million on station upgrades and better maintenance.

In Chicago, several groups sued over access for the disabled, arguing, among other things, that lifts on train and bus lines were poorly maintained and frequently out-of-service. The Chicago Transit Authority agreed to a series of changes, including extending the hours when repairs were made and installing devices that make it easier for wheelchairs to get on and off trains.

“It’s far from perfect, but we definitely felt like we got some improvements,” said Laura Miller, managing attorney for the Illinois-based access group Equip for Equality.

Even with improvements, riding big-city transit in a city like New York will probably never be easy for passengers like Harris.

On a ride uptown from City Hall on Tuesday, he had to take a roundabout route involving three trains to get to the wheelchair-accessible station in Herald Square.

It took three jarring tries to hop his wheelchair over the gap between train and platform at one station. At another, he had to steer his chair down a frighteningly narrow platform, with only inches separating his wheels from the roaring trains.

Some fellow passengers on the packed platforms smiled, others grumbled and hesitated to step out of his way.

Does he schedule trips to avoid rush hour crowds?

“Nope,” he said. “I have as much of a right to be here as anyone else.”

AP-ES-11-25-06 1101EST

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