State settles billion-dollar sidewalk suit
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and Californians for Disability Rights (CDR) have reached an agreement in a large-scale lawsuit addressing sidewalk accessibility for disabled individuals throughout the state. While advocacy groups representing the disabled have previously sued cities over sidewalks that are not compliant with Title II of the American Disabilities Act (ADA), the massive scope of the recent settlement could serve as a precedent.
CDR alleged that Caltrans was liable for making 2,500 miles of sidewalk throughout the state, as well as park-and-ride facilities owned or maintained by Caltrans, accessible to disabled individuals. That includes removing any barriers, adding wheelchair-accessible curb ramps and repairing broken sidewalks. Under the settlement, Caltrans commits to spending $1.1 billion over 30 years to make the state’s sidewalks compliant, with $25 million earmarked for the first five years. “This is one of the largest settlements for architectural barriers under the American Disabilities Act,” says Mary-Lee Kimber, staff attorney for Berkeley, Calif.-based non-profit law firm Disability Rights Advocacy (DRA).
The case is based on another lawsuit DRA served as counsel on against Sacramento that argued that the local entity was responsible for making the city’s sidewalks accessible under ADA, Kimber says. The parties settled the case in 2003 after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that sidewalks are city “programs” and not subject to the same accessibility rules for city “facilities.” While local officials recognize the importance of accessibility, funding is a major concern, says Don Borut, executive director of Washington-based National League of Cities. “The challenge right now is that we have maintenance demands for fundamental infrastructure — streets, water and sewer,” Borut says. “If a particular area is mandated, it means there is no discretion in addressing the range of priorities in cities.” He adds that the settlement could encourage other advocacy groups to pursue similar lawsuits against local governments.
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.