People with disabilities will have an easier time crossing St. Paul streets, as a result of a settlement agreement announced January 25 by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center. The city has agreed to upgrade curb ramps on some of its busiest streets. Curb ramps are short ramps that connect the sidewalk to the street and provide individuals with disabilities access. They are sometimes referred to as curb cuts.
The settlement affects curb ramps on 18 sections of streets that were rebuilt in 2014. It also affects all future street reconstruction and mill and overlay projects.
The St. Paul City Council, which signed off on the settlement January 13, voted that same day to approve changes to the St. Paul Department of Public Works Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Transition Plan. The city is now required to comply with the accessibility requirements of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act when it completes alterations of city streets.
The change means that curb ramps will be replaced with legally compliant ramps, or installed where none exist, during mill and overlay as well as street reconstruction projects. The policy change calls for the city to identify all intersections lacking ramps, or older non-compliant ramps that don’t comply with the accessibility standards in place at the time of the alteration. New ramps will then be installed and older non-compliant ramps replaced.
Through the U.S. Justice Department, the ADA regulates every detail of a curb ramp’s construction including widths, slopes and the “landing area” at the base of the ramp. The most recent version of design regulations was written in 2010.
In the past, Public Works hasn’t considered mill and overlay projects to be the same level of work as street reconstruction. In a mill and overlay project, the top few inches of the street are milled off and then replaced with new pavement. Ramps weren’t replaced as they are when streets are rebuilt with new curbs and gutters unless the ramps were in poor condition. Public Works spokesman Joe Ellickson said that had changed with the new ADA policy’s adoption.
Disability Law Center attorney Steve Schmidt said that while getting legally compliant ramps retrofitted on the streets done in 2014 is important, the more significant win is that compliant ramps will be part of all future projects. The three plaintiffs initially wrote a letter to the city, then submitted a draft legal complaint when that didn’t get the desired response.
Schmidt said the case has triggered interest from other communities. He said the hope is that other communities will bring their ADA policies in line with the law. “The question is what constitutes a street alteration, and my clients consider mill and overlay work to be an alteration,” Schmidt said.
The individuals with disabilities who challenged the city are Rick Cardenas, Margot Imdieke Cross and Ken Rodgers. They worked with the Disability Law Center for more than a year to raise concerns with city officials about curb ramps that were built improperly during work on 11 of the city’s “Terrible 20” streets in need of repair. The streets were among those singled out by Mayor Chris Coleman as needing repair after the harsh winter of 2013.
The settlement indicates that the city has about 230 ramps that need to be retrofitted. Some will be fixed in conjunction with other street projects, but that leaves about 200 ramps that have to be completed. The cost is estimated at about $1 million. Under the federal ADA, cities must comply with current federal accessibility guidelines by installing legally compliant curb ramps when streets are repaired or rebuilt. Cardenas, Cross and Rodgers contended that St. Paul failed to properly upgrade pedestrian curb ramps during 2014 street mill and overlay projects, violating the ADA and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
The settlement agreement provides that by the end of 2017, the city will now complete the necessary ADA upgrades for curb ramps on streets that were part of the 2014 work. “The settlement agreement ensures that all individuals with disabilities who live or visit St. Paul will be able to travel safely on city sidewalks, and be full and equal members of the community,” said Rodgers. “We are pleased that the city has recognized its obligations under the law, and has made a strong commitment to making St. Paul accessible to everyone.”