Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Detroit finally starts proper curb cut construction - 5 years after federal order, 20 years after ADA

From the Detroit Free Press:

Nearly five years after a federal judge ordered the City of Detroit to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by installing curb ramps at intersections, several streets still have not been fitted with properly constructed access ramps.

That's because hundreds of curb ramps that enable physically disabled or impaired people to cross city streets were improperly installed and are now being redone.

By the end of the year, $41.2 million will have been spent on getting the city in compliance with the federal act.

And because of the past errors, the work is being monitored by a federally appointed consultant. Also keeping tabs on the progress are advocates for people with disabilities.

"The law is clear as a bell that curb ramps have to be installed at every intersection," said Mark Finnegan, an attorney representing the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America who sued the city in 2005 for not having the curb ramps.

Department of Public Works Director Al Jordan said the city will have installed more than 12,000 ramps by the end of the year.

"Clearly, we have to comply with the court order," Jordan said.

Crossings hoped to be safer for people with disabilities
Since suffering a spinal injury in a car accident in 1996, Lisa Franklin has lived her life from the vantage point of a wheelchair.

But the simple act of crossing the street can be perilous for her -- or anyone who uses a wheelchair or is blind. Now that Detroit is in the process of fulfilling a federal requirement that street corners have access ramps, Franklin and others with disabilities hope they will see an improvement in their mobility.

"If you don't have a curb cut ... you never realize how important it is unless you're in that situation," Franklin, president of the advocacy group Warriors on Wheels, said of the curb ramps.

But after years of noncompliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act's requirement to have curb ramps for disabled people -- and a federal court settlement -- the City of Detroit is aggressively installing new curb ramps and replacing some that were improperly installed.

Al Jordan, city Department of Public Works director, acknowledged past installation problems, but said nearly 32% of the 87,000 ramps will have been installed by the end of the year.

"It's our obligation. If it's not right or if it wasn't right, we're taking the position that we will make it right," Jordan said.

There were 15,000 ramps installed through 2009. By the end of 2010, there are to be 2,031 newly installed ramps in the 5 square miles of downtown, as required by the court settlement, and 10,390 ramps installed elsewhere in the city.

Under the ADA mandate, the ramps are to be installed even at intersections in desolate parts of the city where few live or travel. Even advocates for disabled people who have sued the city admit the folly of such installations. They say they are willing to negotiate with city officials and are waiting for the city to present them with a policy to modify the settlement.

Ann Arbor attorney Mark Finnegan sued Detroit in 2005 on behalf of advocacy groups for disabled people for lack of compliance with the ADA. He said that since 1992, contractors with the city had been installing the curb ramps incorrectly. In some cases, the slopes were wrong, in others, the ramps' coral-colored inserts -- called detectable warnings -- were made with concrete instead of rubber. In 2006, the city agreed to fix the problems in a court-approved settlement.

The 2005 suit led U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen to appoint an Ohio-based construction consultant firm, H.R. Gray and Associates, to consult with the city and monitor its progress for the court. The firm's 2008 report detailed the city's noncompliance and provided a strategy to get the project done.

"This is the only lawsuit that I've been involved in in a matter that needed a special monitor," Finnegan said.

H.R. Gray found that only 126 ramps in a 5-square-mile downtown area met federal standards.

Finnegan, who represents the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and Center for Community Access, frequently meets with city officials as part of the settlement.

Still, there remains disagreement as to where the curb ramps should go.

"They're leaving out a bunch of curb ramps they should be installing," Finnegan said.

He also said the city is not installing ramps on all sides of some intersections. Jordan, of the DPW, contends installing curb cuts along major streets, including where there is no crossing signal, would make it more dangerous for a person with disabilities because it could be interpreted as if it is safe to cross the street at any point, not just at crossing signals.

The installations are being paid for with two sources: money dedicated to street repairs from Detroit's tax on gasoline and federal surface transportation funds. Four firms are working on the project in downtown Detroit, one of which is Detroit based. Three firms are working on the project throughout the rest of the city. Because the ramps are a federal project, the City of Detroit cannot stipulate that local companies get the contracts.

For this year, $24.2 million will be spent on the ramps, in addition to the $17 million spent through 2009 to install the detectable warnings inserts that appear as braille in the ramps.

Yet the city can't pick and choose where the ramps are installed. All residential areas have been designated to receive the ramps, even areas where there are more abandoned homes and vacant lots than there are people.

"Here's why we want to be as effective with the resources we have available to us," Jordan said, referring to the fact the city is to install curb ramps even in areas with few habitants.

Finnegan said he is aware of the problem of having to install ramps in desolate areas and is willing to modify the settlement if the city can come up with a fair policy addressing the issue.

"I'm glad to hear that (Finnegan) is willing to negotiate," Jordan said. "We are having the discussion to establish some acceptable terms."

At least one transportation expert says making some allowances for Detroit's desolate areas would be helpful.

"It's a big impact ... especially when you start talking about municipalities like Detroit," said Tim Colling, senior research engineer with the Michigan Tech Transportation Institute at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, who advises municipalities on managing issues such as ADA compliance.

'They have come a long way'
Franklin and Michael Harris, president of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans, said the city is doing a much better job installing the curb ramps.

"They really are working on this, and they're very responsive to our requests," Franklin said. Harris, whose group was part of the 2005 suit, says the lack of curb ramps is a problem throughout the state. Left a paraplegic by a 1986 car accident, Harris said he once toppled out of his wheelchair at an improperly installed ramp in Lansing.

Harris lives in Westland but comes to Detroit to work and for sporting events.

"They have come a long way," Harris said about the curb ramp installation in Detroit. "I have nothing but good things to say."

Raymond Roberson, 82, of Dearborn is blind and comes to the city almost daily to volunteer with the Detroit Department of Transportation local advisory council.

But Roberson doesn't enter the street from the inclined curb ramps that have raised bumpy surfaces, which are designed to alert visually impaired people to the street's edge, because the ramps can send him in the wrong direction. Instead, he taps his cane around the ramp to align him with the edge of the sidewalk.

"I still look for the curb so I can figure out which way the traffic is going," he said.