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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

Why white plastic tension-rods have appeared in the Capitol…

White plastic tension rods, including this one, have been installed under items that protrude from walls in the state Capitol, as a temporary measure to eliminate a hazard to visually impaired people using canes.  (Betsy Z. Russell)
White plastic tension rods, including this one, have been installed under items that protrude from walls in the state Capitol, as a temporary measure to eliminate a hazard to visually impaired people using canes. (Betsy Z. Russell)

If you’ve been wondering – and I know I have – why white plastic tension rods, like shower curtain bars, have been installed all around the Capitol under protruding items like drinking fountains, we now have the answer. They’re an interim version of a fix to one of $400,000 worth of Americans with Disabilities Act violations identified in the $120 million renovation of the state Capitol. The problem is that if a visually impaired person using a cane is going through the building, there’s no warning at cane level, within 12 inches of the floor, that something’s sticking out from the wall that the person could run into.

The permanent solutions will include brass spindles connecting drinking fountains to the floor, matching other brass railings in the building, and for mail drop boxes, a marble box will be built extending down to the floor, using leftover pieces of marble from the renovation that match the walls behind. State Deputy Public Works Director Jan Frew explained this to the Legislative Council today, as part of an update on ADA improvements the state is making to the Capitol under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.


“That provides the warning, then, down to the floor, that the cane could intercept,” Frew told lawmakers. Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, responded, “I commend you for trying to make it look nice, have it blend in with the rest of the Capitol. That’s great.”

The first set of ADA improvements was required to be completed by the end of July, and that included the fix for the items that protrude more than 4 inches from the wall and are above 12 inches from the floor. Also completed in that batch were new signs with raised text and Braille, posted on the right-hand side of public entrances to state offices. That phase was supposed to include new accessible hardware for Capitol doors, but Frew said the state has applied for and received permission to take longer on that one, as accessible brass fixtures that are historic replicas are on order.

The second batch of ADA improvements, which is required to be completed by December, includes new accessible entrances at the east and west ends of the Capitol, along with new signage and other items. The new entrances are under construction now; they’re adding ramps up three steps at the ground-floor level at both ends of the Capitol.

“We think that’s actually a good thing to have those additional entrances,” Frew told lawmakers. “Currently the only entrance that was accessible was on Jefferson Street,” via ramps down to the Capitol’s lower level. “Putting them on both the east and west end definitely makes it more accessible to more areas where people are coming on the site.”

Frew said those accessible entrances weren’t included in the original designs for the Capitol renovation because she, along with other state officials and contractors, believed a historic building exemption applied to the project, so the project wouldn’t have to comply with the ADA’s requirements for accessible entrances beyond the one on Jefferson Street. “The Department of Justice came in, and their interpretation was that because we were spending $120 million, that exemption should not apply, and we should bring everything up to accessible standards for a new building,” she said.

Idaho disability activists met with state officials including Frew as the renovation was being planned and pointed out the need for the improvements, but the state didn’t include them in the project; after the building reopened without the accessibility improvements, they filed a complaint that led to the legal settlement.

Hill said, “We need to learn our lesson here as we’re going forward. We have other historical buildings in the state that we continue to renovate – we’ve got one across the street. These kinds of provisions need to be in that contract, and/or we need assurance from the Department of Justice that when we’re done, we’re done. I’m not an attorney, I don’t know how to do that.” He added to Frew, “We appreciate the work you’re doing here. You mentioned doing the right thing. We care about these citizens. … We certainly want to do what’s right in regards to those citizens.”

 The third phase of the ADA improvements, under the settlement agreement, must be completed by July of 2016. That includes adding five wheelchair-accessible seating spaces in the Lincoln Auditorium, plus companion seating; and making the armrest removable on one aisle seat. “There was a very little-known requirement; I was not aware of this before,” Frew said. “It is in ADA requirements … and has been there for quite some time. We’ll be taking care of it.”

The fourth phase, to be completed by December of 2016, includes adding wheelchair-accessible seating spaces and companion seating in the House and Senate galleries; some walls will be moved to accomplish that. It also includes replacing the concrete ramps on the Jefferson Street side, whose slopes didn’t meet code; and making drainage improvements.

The final phase, which must be completed by July of 2017, is the hardware retrofits on public access doors.

Frew said the designs for the concrete ramps met code requirements, and when the state inspected and accepted the work, it thought it had met the requirements, but the DOJ found it hadn’t.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, questioned why the cost for the changes shouldn’t be covered by the contractors through their insurance policies, rather than by state taxpayers. Frew said the state shared the responsibility for the violations, not just the contractors.

“I appreciate the tension bars and that issue, I get that,” Bedke said. “But this other, the slope was clearly delineated in the specs … and it was off. There’s no excuse for not having it drain.” He questioned whether the state should go after payment from contractors’ insurance policies.

Frew said, “I think our practical answer is it’s not worth the time, the effort or the money to pursue a legal action against those parties, because we’re all working together right now to try and get these things fixed.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “In a $120 million project, a $400,000 ‘oops’ is, at least in my experience in construction law, not much. I think we have to say the project was a success, even though we’ve got these issues. But $400,000 is $400,000, and that cost should rest with the proper party, and to me that means figuring out who the proper party is.” He recommended examining the state’s contracts to see if the contractors bear some of the liability, and perhaps going to mediation, as Frew said there’s a mediation clause in the contract for disputes.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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