Disabled residents sue Caltrans

May 7, 2008 7:03:02 PM PDT
People with disabilities are suing Caltrans over public sidewalks they control and maintain. They say Caltrans has failed to give the disabled "equal access" to the roadways. Caltrans says that access will cost billions.

"I was walking on Ashby a couple of weeks ago and I hit my head on the street sign and cut my head on it," said Dmitri Belser.

Belser has to navigate through a hodgepodge of dangerous obstacles when he walks from his home to work on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley.

Belser is legally blind. He's also part of a group of disabled people suing Caltrans.

They claim the agency is violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by not bringing its sidewalks up to compliance.

"People with disabilities need to have the same access as anyone else," said Belser.

Caltrans is responsible for maintaining California's vast system of highways and bridges.

What most people don't know is that the agency is also responsible for the upkeep of more than 2,500 miles of sidewalks up and down the state.

They're the sidewalks of old state highways that run through towns and cities like Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, which is also called Route 13.

There are a few intersections with tricky difficult thresholds," said Larry Paradis from Disability Right's Advocates.

Paradis is with Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit public interest law firm representing the disabled plaintiffs.

There are curb ramps that are missing or poorly built, which drops sharply to the street.

"So this requires me to really push as hard as I can to get over that," said Paradis.

Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco is an extension of Highway 101. On many intersections, the yellow detectable warnings for the blind are hit and miss and many curbs have no ramps at all.

Once wheelchair users cross the street on Van Ness, they have to go over a gutter grate to use the curb ramp on the other side of the corner.

Disability rights advocates say that there are other examples on the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach.

A wheelchair user was blocked by a post in the middle of the street, and a dangerously slanted curb almost causes the person to tip over.

Caltrans declined to comment on the lawsuit, directing us instead to a letter from its director Will Kempton to State Senate President Don Perata.

The letter says: "In the past decade, Caltrans has spent $100 million to meet ADA compliance and that its installed curb ramps at 90 percent of its required locations.

Kempton also writes he'll need at least $10 million a year to build 10,000 new curb ramps by the end of 2013, bringing the overall cost of ADA compliance work to more than $2 billion.

"No entity that I'm aware in the cities that I represent, want to do anything other than that which is right," said attorney Eugene Elliot.

Elliot represents 27 cities fighting similar lawsuits charging that their sidewalks are not up to ADA compliance.

"The question often is how do you best achieve that? Of course there are limited financial constraints that that cities have to work with and that becomes a part of these cases," said Elliot.

Paradis says Caltrans is fighting the lawsuit tooth and nail, even using the Doctrine of States Rights as a defense.

Caltrans argued that it has sovereign immunity such that Congress could not require Caltrans to comply with federal law," said Paradis.

"Because it's a state agency?" asked ABC7's Vic Lee.

"Because it's a state agency," said Paradis.

"That's just a bad thing for the state of California to do," said State Senator Don Perata (D) East Bay.

Perata has asked the governor to intervene and direct Caltrans to stop fighting the lawsuit.

"The people in the disability community who have fought hard for centuries to get equal rights under the law now see one of the most progressive states in the country making this kind of claim," said Perata.

"We're not looking for damages. We're not working for a quick fix. We're really looking for Caltrans to agree, this is an important issue and we're going to start addressing it," said Belser.

For Belser, the sidewalk is an important battleground for disability rights. For him, it is a constant reminder of the inequities of being blind.


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