By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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When the Missouri Department of Transportation was about to spend $17 million in state and federal money to repave almost eighteen miles of Lindbergh Boulevard, design engineers thought adding sidewalks at the same time would be the smart thing to do. The old north-south thoroughfare connects a number of St. Louis County suburbs, and from Old St. Charles Rock Road to Manchester Road, the only way to avoid cars was to walk on a gravel shoulder.
Converting the shoulder to a paved sidewalk would cost about $1 million, a fraction of the project's total price tag, says Greg Horn, assistant district engineer at MoDOT's Chesterfield office. The sidewalk plans included ramps for wheelchairs and strips with raised dots for blind people. As required, it was all planned according to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
It wasn't long before people with disabilities began to test MoDOT's handiwork. Lasting throughout 2006, MoDOT's path of construction passed right in front of the headquarters of Paraquad, a not-for-profit advocacy group that helps disabled people live independently. (Paraquad has since outgrown its Lindbergh offices and is now on Oakland Avenue in St. Louis.)
"They and their clients were actively struggling with it," says Gina Hilberry, an architect who helped Paraquad document the problems with MoDOT's work. Hilberry's St. Louis firm consults on ADA compliance, and she sits on a national advisory committee for access to public rights of way.
In July 2006 and in February of this year, Hilberry found dozens of the ramps on Lindbergh that she says were out of compliance. They were too steep, or too tilted, or emptied right into lanes of traffic, all presenting a barrier and potential danger to people in wheelchairs, or those with other disabilities. "They simply did not work," says Hilberry.
MoDOT actually ripped out and rebuilt some of the ramps last fall. The highway department acknowledges that the ramps still don't meet standards, but Paraquad isn't waiting for MoDOT to act on its own. In June Paraquad filed two human rights complaints with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights one about the sidewalks on Lindbergh and another concerning MoDOT's project on Chouteau Avenue in St. Louis. Paraquad also sent its grievances to the U.S. Department of Justice, which forwarded them to the civil rights division of the Federal Highway Administration.
Paraquad states that the Lindbergh and Chouteau sidewalks "represent just a small sampling of the inaccessible curb ramps and sidewalks that exist throughout the state of Missouri." Now the advocacy group is demanding that MoDOT evaluate all of its curb ramps and sidewalks statewide and find a way to bring them into compliance. MoDOT spokesman Jeff Briggs says both complaints have been received, but that no action will be taken until the human rights commission completes its investigation.
David Newburger, a disability-rights lawyer in St. Louis who consulted with Paraquad on the case, says he expects MoDOT will protest, saying it oversees a huge number of sidewalks and that it would be too costly to comply. He says that's no excuse, noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act has been on the books since 1990.
Brent Hugh, director of the Missouri Bicycle Federation, applauds Paraquad's action. "Those of us in the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy community have been saying for years that [MoDOT] is not paying enough attention to pedestrian access issues, and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance."
The Missouri Commission on Human Rights plans to investigate Paraquad's complaints and send its findings to the executive director, who will then determine whether there's probable cause for further action. If the two sides fail to reach a settlement, the case could proceed to a public hearing before a three-commissioner panel.
Horn says that on both Lindbergh and Chouteau, MoDOT was doing its best to retrofit old roads, while meeting modern standards. "Believe me, we're trying to do the right thing, spend taxpayers' money the right way," he says.
The work on Chouteau Avenue was part of a $3 million project to prepare Manchester Road and Chouteau to carry thousands more vehicles after Highway 40 shuts down for reconstruction, starting early next year. MoDOT replaced or installed new traffic signals at 28 intersections, working from summer 2006 to last March. "We're trying to get signals in there to make that flow better," Horn says.
Despite MoDOT's intentions, Andrew Lackey, an independent living and advocacy specialist at Paraquad, says the highway department committed a cardinal sin at least in the world of ADA compliance when the wide concrete bases of the new signal poles effectively blocked half the passing space on sidewalks.
"They made it less accessible," Lackey complains. "You're not allowed to make it less accessible. That's the one thing you're not allowed to do."
Horn explains that MoDOT maintains Chouteau for the City of St. Louis and, as a result, the state doesn't have control over every inch of adjacent sidewalk. Wheelchair-users still have at least three feet of sidewalk for passing, Horn says. However, the remaining three feet of sidewalk are less than ideal in some places.
On the northeast corner of Chouteau and Compton avenues, for example, MoDOT's new traffic-signal pole sits in close proximity to an old fire hydrant and a short concrete-filled column, all within a few feet of an aging ramped curb. The collection of obstacles forces two people who walk side-by-side along the sidewalk to line up single-file and weave around them.
Paraquad's sidewalk campaign began in November 2005, after the driver of an SUV struck and killed Elizabeth Bansen of St. Louis as she was riding in her wheelchair on Delmar Boulevard, west of Jefferson Avenue. She was traveling in the road because the sidewalk was in rough shape and, in places, had no ramps. "That was sort of what triggered us to look at the sidewalks across the region," Lackey recalls. "What we found, particularly at Lindbergh, was scary to us."
Horn says MoDOT agreed with Paraquad about the Lindbergh sidewalks. After even the rebuilt ramps failed to meet standards, Horn says MoDOT hired a St. Louis-area consultant, EFK Moen, and was prepared to spend an additional $160,000 for ramp-building in August. That project is on hold, pending resolution of the human rights complaint.
While pointing out specific safety hazards, Paraquad also wants MoDOT to make handicap-accessibility a general priority.
Lackey says it's difficult to communicate with a sprawling bureaucracy. He says the fact that MoDOT put poles in sidewalks on Chouteau is case-in-point. "That was after we had talked to them about Lindbergh," he says. "That's an example of a communication breakdown. That was very frustrating to know we had done all this work with MoDOT, then this other part of MoDOT had done the same thing. They hadn't gotten the message."