Access complaints spur suit
Civil rights advocates asserted in federal court Wednesday that California’s highway agency has denied people with disabilities equal access to sidewalks throughout the state by failing to install wheelchair ramps and warnings for the blind at street corners.
The class-action lawsuit, which went to trial before U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong in Oakland, alleges that Caltrans has violated the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires improvements in accessibility whenever sidewalks and roads are built or undergo major repairs.
Attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law firm based in Berkeley, contend 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, where they risk being hit by vehicles.
“We need to be able to get from point A to point B safely,” said Ben Rockwell, 64, of Long Beach, a wheelchair user who is a plaintiff in the case. “I’m tired of having to go out in the middle of the street. . . . Do they have no sense of caring?”
Matt Rocco, a Caltrans spokesman, said the department has a policy that prohibits commenting on pending lawsuits. He said, however, that the agency remains committed to complying with the disabilities act. During the last 12 months, Rocco said, Caltrans has spent $10 million -- an amount that will be spent annually for the next several years -- to build and upgrade curb ramps as well as improve sidewalks.
Government officials and powerful municipal organizations such as the League of California Cities have contended that access lawsuits will burden financially strapped state and local agencies that are already struggling to comply with the law. Caltrans estimates that it would cost about $2.5 billion to make improvements statewide.
The California Council of the Blind, Californians for Disability Rights Inc., Dmitri Belser, 51, of Berkeley, and Rockwell, a disability rights activist, filed the federal lawsuit in August 2006. They brought a companion case in state court to address whether Caltrans should upgrade sidewalks built before the disabilities act was passed; a trial date has yet to be set.
The plaintiffs say they are seeking a court order or settlement forcing Caltrans to fix the problem sidewalks, change its policy and comply with federal law in the future.
They also want Caltrans to pay their attorneys’ fees if they prevail.
Mary-Lee Kimber, an attorney from Disability Rights Advocates, said partial data from Caltrans from 2001 to 2006 indicates that the agency did not install about 1,000 required curb ramps during road improvements. She added that the number does not include curb ramps that were installed but don’t comply with federal law.
Former Caltrans Director Will Kempton estimated last year that the agency needs to install about 10,000 new curb ramps statewide, retrofit about 50,000 existing curb ramps, reconstruct about 2,500 miles of sidewalk and modify pedestrian crossings at 15,000 intersections, including the installation of audible signals for the blind.
“This is a pervasive problem,” Kimber said. “When you build a road or sidewalk or do an alteration, it provides an opportunity to provide access. Instead, Caltrans is just putting up roadblocks.”
The case is one of a growing number of state and federal lawsuits in California designed to secure equal access to public rights of way, such as sidewalks, crosswalks and park-and-ride facilities.
Some of the cases have resulted in agreements with several cities to make improvements.