Access a challenge during light rail construction season

Construction of the Central Corridor light rail project is more than 20 percent complete, according to project staff. Parts of University Avenue, including the stretch from Emerald to Hampden, are complete on the south side. That means switching the work and the worst impacts on businesses, to the north side.

For people with disabilities who must cross University Avenue and who catch the bus there, the summer has been very challenging. It has been very difficult for people who use wheelchairs and walkers to get across the street or get to bus stops. Metropolitan Council staff, Council Member JonCommers, St. Paul Ward Four Council Member Russ Stark and others have been also out recently inspecting access, to make sure patrons get into storefronts and people can cross streets safely.

Project staff admits that access has been a challenge. In some cases construction vehicles have blocked sidewalks.

Metal pedestrian safety guards have been blown over or shifted to create passages that are too narrow for wheelchairs. Bus stops have been found to not have accessibility ramps. In some places temporary ramps were created but these quickly broke apart or wore out. 

One way to address that has been to install wooden accessibility ramps with protective barriers at bus stops. These are easier for people in wheelchairs and those who use walkers or canes to access.

In other cases signage has been confusing and in some places, hazards such as cones or barricades have blocked sidewalks. For some businesses, vehicle access has either been blocked or has been hard to find.

“We saw there were issues and we agreed there was room for improvement,” said Stark. Robin Caufman, who leads outreach efforts for the light rail project, said the project staff is doing what they can to document and then resolve issues with contractors, There are weekly meetings with the contractor to discuss issue. The project contractors face financial penalties if problems aren’t resolved.

“I’m really happy to see that people are out there on a daily basis trying to address these issues,” said Metropolitan Council Chairperson Susan Haigh.

The $957 million light rail project will be completed in 2014. Construction is underway throughout downtown St. Paul, in the capitol area and on University from Hamline to Washington Avenue. Washington is also under construction. Business impacts on the project are being closely tracked.

The focus on access comes at a time when businesses have started applying for assistance, in the form of loans of up to $20,000. The loans are from a $4 million fund and are offered in St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Loans are forgiven, 20 percent per year. If a business stays open for five years after the loan is received, no money has to be repaid.

Nancy Homan, senior policy analysis for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said the city has OK’d 14 loans. The loans range from $1,256 for a yoga studio to four $20,000 loans and four $19,000 loans. A property management company and the Low Vision Store, which sells products for people with visual impairments, were turned down. The Low Vision Store was turned down because many of its products are sold online, a service not affected by light rail construction. 

“We’ve spent $281,000 on the loan program to date,” said Homans. She said the program appears to be working. St. Paul city officials involved in the loan program are seeing a wide variation in losses reported by businesses, from 8 to 68 percent.