How important is handicapped accessibility?
In December, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and Californians for Disability Rights reached a $1.1 billion settlement in a lawsuit regarding sidewalk accessibility for disabled individuals. Although representatives for local governments and disability groups agree that making the nation’s sidewalks accessible for all Americans is important, how to rank the projects on priority lists is a source of debate.
Some disability advocates say that local and state governments have had plenty of time to remove access barriers since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. “ADA was not an unreasonable act when it was passed, and it didn’t require immediate access,” says Mary-Lee Kimber, staff attorney for Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocacy, a non-profit law firm that served as the plaintiffs’ counsel. “It allowed public entities to create a transition plan over time to address access barriers. Many public entities ignored that, and in 2010, years and years after that passage, they are now saying they don’t have funding.”
Kimber points out that Caltrans did not have a plan or schedule for removing access barriers, which it now does as part of the settlement. The plan totals $1.1 billion over the next 30 years, with the money weighted toward later years. Caltrans will set aside $25 million annually for the first five years, $35 million per year over the next 10 years, $40 million per year for the next 10 years and then $45 million for the next five years. The agreement still needs to be approved by the federal court in April.
Municipalities are willing to improve sidewalk accessibility, says Don Borut, executive director of Washington-based National League of Cities. “The objective is laudable. No one is going to object to that,” Borut says. “Over the years, municipal officials have been interested in doing this. The issue is the money. The challenge is the trade-offs.”
For example, Caltrans director Randy Iwasaki has said that the agency likely will have to divert money from road and bridge projects to cover the costs from the settlement. Still, asking the state to repair its sidewalks is not an unreasonable demand, Kimber says. “[The state is] spending a lot of money, but over many years,” she says. “It’s not that changes need to be immediate, but barrier removal must happen.”