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Washington state faces an epidemic of inaccessible sidewalks

Oct. 5, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 5, 2022 at 8:11 p.m.

Krystal Monteros, chair of the Tacoma Area Commission on Disabilities, heads home after giving a tour of spots where she has struggled with Tacoma’s sidewalks en route to church or her bus stop.  (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
Krystal Monteros, chair of the Tacoma Area Commission on Disabilities, heads home after giving a tour of spots where she has struggled with Tacoma’s sidewalks en route to church or her bus stop. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
By David Kroman Seattle Times

The Tacoma apartment was listed as wheelchair accessible, but it didn’t matter, because Krystal Monteros couldn’t get there in the first place.

When the bus dropped her at the closest stop, Monteros, a wheelchair user, found herself on a small concrete island with only gravel “sidewalks” to either side. The building she wanted to visit was to the south, but her path to get there ended with a 6-inch drop and no ramp. The four-lane road didn’t have any crossings.

So Monteros got out her cellphone and canceled her appointment for a tour. Then she waited once more for the bus that had just dropped her off.

“If I can’t access them through public transportation, I’m not going to live there,” she said. “I’m going to be trapped in my unit.”

Between Monteros and a new apartment sat obstacles that, to many, likely wouldn’t register at all: a missing sidewalk and a curb without a ramp. Yet, for her and other wheelchair users, such barriers mean dramatic daily limits on where she can go and what she can do. Monteros, who was born with spina bifida, leaving her without the use of her legs below her knees, has to know her routes in advance. “If I don’t know the area, I’m not going to go there by myself,” she said.

Across Washington lies a glut of impassable sidewalks for people with disabilities. At thousands of intersections, sidewalks end without a ramp to the street. Where there are ramps, a Seattle Times review of more than 30 cities’ and counties’ assessments of their roads and sidewalks found no jurisdiction where even 50% comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act – a microcosm of sidewalks’ sorry state. In most locations, close to three-quarters are out of compliance: too narrow, too steep, too rough, gaps in the concrete and more.

In Auburn, 71% of curb ramps do not meet ADA standards; in Battle Ground, Clark County, 65%; Olympia, 71%; Marysville, 75%.

The list goes on, a catalog of all the places people with disabilities struggle to go.

Cities and counties are legally obligated under the landmark 1990 federal law to tackle the problem. But the job is so vast and the price so high that tentative plans for replacement look decades into the future. In unincorporated King County, where just 10% of curb ramps were found to be ADA compliant, the cost of upgrades is estimated to be $500 million. Kirkland’s sidewalk repair plan runs until nearly 2060. In Olympia, which has either no or inadequate ramps on more than 4,000 sidewalks, the cost is put at more than $100 million. The city’s 2023 budget for its sidewalk repair program is $200,000.

The collective cost across Washington is well into the billions.

“It’s pretty overwhelming to look at it and say, holy moly,” said Desiree Winkler, Federal Way’s deputy of public works.

Accountability is spotty, largely based on complaints or litigation. More money is becoming available at the state level for sidewalk projects thanks to a $17 billion transportation funding measure passed by lawmakers this year. But little money is dedicated from the state or federal government specifically for accessibility.

As a result, cities are mostly on their own – here and around the country – to fix what can feel like an unfixable problem.

“We need $106 million,” said Mark Russell, Olympia’s public works interim director. “I don’t see the state and community supporting that kind of investment that quickly.”

ADA attorney

By the time she left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Washington this year, Christina Fogg was the only attorney working on ADA issues, and only part time.

“I could make a full-time job just doing ADA enforcement,” said Fogg, who now works for Metropolitan King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski. “It was always a frustration to not have more resources. I got this feeling, certainly with respect to ADA, of ‘how many stones are we leaving unturned?’ ”

Title II of the ADA mandates that no person with disabilities “be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” An estimated 8% of Washington residents have some kind of mobility disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Any government with at least 50 employees must conduct an evaluation of its streets’ accessibility. But absent ADA police, enforcement is complaint-based and change comes mostly through litigation.

“Lawsuits are making a bigger impact – more than policy – in that they’re raising awareness and making local governments commit,” said Yochai Eisenberg, a professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 2015, three men with disabilities sued the city of Seattle in federal court over curb ramps they alleged were “too narrow, too steep, or too cracked, broken, or uplifted to be used by individuals with mobility disabilities.” A 2013 evaluation found 5,000 ramps to be out of compliance with the ADA, 1,750 severely so.

The city agreed to a settlement with Disability Rights Washington that mandated it build or fix 1,250 ramps per year over the next 18 years, at a cost of roughly $300 million.

“Very few neighborhoods were ‘walkable’ as a wheelchair user, primarily because of that issue,” said Conrad Reynoldson, the attorney who represented the men and a wheelchair user himself.

Lawsuits like the one in Seattle have popped up in large cities in recent years, including in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago and others – one of the only avenues to force change.

At the same time, smaller communities often have similar or worse ADA compliance.

“It was really frustrating that that’s the only way these things come up, because how many people even know they can turn to the [Department of Justice]?” said Fogg.

Outside of the courts, few entities are looking over the shoulders of local governments to ensure they’re planning for and executing progress. Some locations that are required to survey their facilities, including Kitsap County, haven’t done so.

Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Program at Disability Rights Washington, has been pushing local transportation agencies to take a more active role in overseeing the creation and implementation of plans for improving sidewalk accessibility. So far, the issue has been hot-potatoed around, with no clear agreement on who can or should step in.

Even the Washington State Department of Transportation is unsure how local ADA compliance fits into its portfolio. The agency has compiled an informal list of which jurisdictions have written a transition plan, but no comprehensive analysis of compliance levels or progress has been done. Shawn Murinko, ADA coordinator for WSDOT, said they’re starting conversations with the Federal Highway Administration “to fully understand our authority and everyone’s roles and responsibilities,” but declined to comment further.

“Nobody wants to take responsibility for it and there’s no way to force them,” said Zivarts.

On the streets

Kat Woofter, a wheelchair user, is in the street more than she’s on the sidewalk. Most corners and intersections don’t have ramps, leaving her stranded or in search of a driveway, which can have steep angles.

She and her partner live in Bremerton, one of few places in the state with a dedicated funding stream to make ADA improvements. His sight is limited, which means they both encounter the same barriers, but in different ways. She’s well aware of the dangers of using the street, but it’s either that or tethering herself to her home.

“It’s dangerous and I’m scared, but I’m not going to let that stop me from my freedom,” she said. “It feels so good to do things on my own.”

It’s the same for Monteros in Tacoma. She eventually found an apartment she could reach, near the back of a long complex. She rolls down the middle of the parking lot to run her errands. There’s a sidewalk, but it’s missing a ramp on the end, so she stays on the road. On rainy days, she doesn’t go out at all; the exit is down a steep hill and she fears losing control into traffic.

“There’s so many other things like this I can show you,” she said.

Cataloging a city’s ADA compliance is a painstaking process that often requires hired consultants to tally every sidewalk. In Everett, where 56% of existing ramps are not compliant and many other sidewalks have no ramp at all, staff walked 733 miles and surveyed over 3,000 locations, said Christina Curtis, Everett’s transportation engineer.

University of Washington professor Jon Froehlich is working to hone a form of artificial intelligence that could accurately assess public infrastructure without physically counting each ramp or signal button.

“There’s not enough research and follow-up and accountability,” Froehlich said.

The requirements for ramps are highly specific: They can’t be steeper than an 8.33% slope, must be flush at both the top and bottom, have at least 36 inches of sidewalk at the top and a lengthy list of other requirements.

Because the infrastructure of most cities predates the ADA, it’s common, and expected, to find widespread noncompliance. Mark Herceg, public works director for the city of Battle Ground, said the consultants warned him: “It’s going to be a big number and a large price tag.”

Most ramps surveyed are considered significantly out of compliance. In Duvall, 88% were marked in need of “major” updates to reach compliance, versus 11% needing “minor” changes. In SeaTac, it was 80%.

New thinking

Only recently has Cecile Malik, senior transportation planner with the city of Auburn, noticed a change in thinking in the transportation world, toward “not just the cars, but other modes of transportation, and that includes accessibility,” she said.

But turning that ship is slow. Private development, especially in fast-growing Puget Sound cities, is a major driver of accessibility improvements. As they repave sidewalks outside of their new buildings, they must do so in accordance with ADA.

Outside of development, cities can compete for federal Community Development Block Grant money or “active transportation” grants from the state, which got a jolt of new money this year from state legislators. Neither is specific to ADA, meaning they’re competing with a range of project proposals and often fold the accessibility upgrades into other project proposals.

The rest of the money must come straight out of local budgets, which can be a stretch for smaller cities. Marysville would have to spend its entire budget to cover the $50 million in necessary upgrades, said Jeff Laycock, the city’s public works director.

The total costs statewide are murky, due in part to patchy implementation of transition plans and minimal central accounting. The state admitted in a 2020 transportation “needs assessment” that it was in the dark. “This lack of information means that the expected gap in funding ADA compliance over the next 10 years is unclear,” the assessment concluded.

Thinking of disability

In 1975, the United Kingdom-based Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation defined disability not as an individual condition but as an external inhibitor.

“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people,” its treatise read. “Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

For Monteros, using a wheelchair means her world is defined by the blocks she can go and those she can’t. Residential neighborhoods are mostly off-limits because their ramps are the worst kept. She does her best to let the daily inconveniences she faces slide off her back. But it can all get to be too much sometimes, like when a steep sidewalk tipped her backward with her groceries strapped to her chair, causing her to hit her head and triggering a grand mal seizure.

“I tend to get angry a lot of times,” she said.

The ADA was passed under a Republican president with Democratic votes. It ushered in an era of civil rights for people with disabilities. But in the humble curb ramp, a symbol emerges of the law’s limits, a reality Fogg saw up close in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“It’s a constant frustration that even though it was more than 30 years ago that they got a federal right, it frequently doesn’t translate into the real world,” she said. “A curb cut sounds like a minor issue and then it sounds expensive. But then when you think of the flip side, not having a curb cut for people who have a mobility disability means they cannot do things on that block. They just can’t. Huge groups of Americans just can’t be a part of regular life.”

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