Caltrans settles lawsuit over disabled access

In a landmark court settlement proposed Tuesday, Caltrans agreed to spend $1.1 billion over the next 30 years to repair and improve state-controlled sidewalks, crosswalks and park-and-ride facilities so they are accessible for people with disabilities.

The settlement, filed at the federal courthouse in Oakland, was a major victory for civil rights activists, who have been battling for years with the transportation agency to provide equal access to public rights-of-way for the blind and those who use wheelchairs, canes or walkers.

Advocates said they hoped that the agreement would become a national model for resolving disputes between the disabled and other state and local governments.

The class-action lawsuit that sparked the settlement has been closely watched by local officials and powerful municipal organizations, such as the National League of Cities and the League of California Cities. The groups have long contended that such lawsuits unnecessarily burden financially strapped cities that are already struggling to comply with federal and state access requirements.

"We have won a significant victory," said Ben Rockwell, 64, of Long Beach, a wheelchair user who has long complained to Caltrans about poor sidewalk conditions along Pacific Coast Highway. "While this work might not be finished in my lifetime, I hope that future generations will see better access throughout all areas of the state because of what has been done here."

The settlement applies to about 2,500 miles of sidewalk, crosswalks and 300 park-and-ride facilities that are owned and maintained by Caltrans. Intersections, pedestrian overpasses and underpasses are also subject.

Attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law firm based in Berkeley, contend that miles of sidewalk are impassible for people with handicaps and that thousands of required wheelchair ramps along state routes are either missing, do not comply with federal law or lack warnings such as bumps that the blind can feel underfoot.

The conditions, they say, are dangerous and can force wheelchair users, for example, to detour onto streets.

Hundreds of thousands of Californians with disabilities will be affected by the agreement. At least 300,000 people in the state have serious vision impairments, 350,000 use wheelchairs, and about 700,000 rely on walkers, canes or crutches. The numbers are expected to increase significantly as the baby boom generation ages.

"This settlement is a win-win," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "It would be inexcusable to continue to delay these modifications. Instead of debating this through the legal process for the next decade, costing millions of taxpayer dollars, we are taking action to get this work completed."

The settlement will pay for remedying access problems at tens of thousands of sites along Caltrans sidewalks and at other pedestrian facilities. Department officials said the money would come from the State Highway Operation and Protection Program, a pool of state and federal funds.

Under the agreement, the state will spend $25 million per year for the first five years, $35 million per year for the next 10 years, $40 million per year for the 10 years after that, and $45 million per year for the final five years.

The amount is far greater than the $10 million a year Caltrans had budgeted to bring walkways and other pedestrian facilities into compliance.

In addition, Caltrans agreed to upgrade existing curb ramps that do not comply with access laws, and to install curb ramps where needed when existing roads are resurfaced or reconstructed. Similarly, Caltrans must comply with state and federal access laws for new construction and provide temporary pedestrian routes around those sites that can be used by everyone.

Former Caltrans Director Will Kempton estimated in 2008 that the agency needed to install about 10,000 curb ramps statewide, retrofit about 50,000 existing curb ramps, reconstruct hundreds of miles of sidewalk and modify pedestrian crossings at 15,000 intersections, including the installation of audible signals for the blind.

Before it is finalized, the settlement proposal needs to be reviewed by a federal judge, participants in the class-action suit and the U.S. Department of Justice. The court also must approve legal fees and costs to be paid by Caltrans. The estimates range between $3.75 million and $8.75 million.

"This settlement is unprecedented in terms of its money and scope," said Mary-Lee Kimber, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates. "We commend Caltrans. Improving sidewalks is a major step toward integrating people with disabilities into the community at large."

Californians for Disability Rights Inc., the California Council for the Blind, Rockwell, and Dimitri Belser, 51, of Berkeley, who has a vision impairment, filed the federal lawsuit in August 2006. They alleged that Caltrans had violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires improvements in accessibility whenever sidewalks or other pedestrian facilities are built or undergo major repairs.

The lawsuits specifically mention Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach and California 13, known in Berkeley as Ashby Avenue. Shortly after the case against Caltrans went to trial in September, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong discontinued the testimony and ordered both sides to discuss the possibility of a settlement. "We have always been trying to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Ronald Beals, Caltrans' chief counsel. "But we knew there were needs out there and we wanted to do the best we could to work with the community. I think we can fix most of these problems."

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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