Settlement Ensures Improved Access for Californians with Disabilities

Ben Rockwell tries to squeeze past a lamppost on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. Rockwell called the Caltrans settlement "a significant victory." (Photo: Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times)
Ben Rockwell tries to squeeze past a lamppost on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, CA. (Photo: Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times)

Just before the holidays, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) settled two long-running ADA lawsuits filed by disability rights advocates over poor access for people with disabilities on state roads. Under the settlement, Caltrans has agreed to spend $1.1 billion over the next 30 years to make existing sidewalks accessible. The agency will upgrade existing curb ramps that do not comply with access laws and install curb ramps where needed when resurfacing or reconstructing roadways. The settlement applies to 2,500 miles of existing sidewalk, crosswalks, and 300 park-and-ride facilities that are owned and maintained by Caltrans. Intersections and pedestrian overpasses and underpasses are also covered.

The settlement is in line with Caltrans’ internal Complete Streets policy (.pdf), updated in October of 2008, in which the department pledges to provide “for the needs of travelers of all ages and abilities in all planning, programming, design, construction, operations, and maintenance activities and products on the State highway system.” Note that the settlement does not require the installation of new sidewalks, but addresses the repair of sidewalks that are crumbling, too steep, or lack usable curb cuts or detectable warnings – conditions that prevent people who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities from reaching destinations or force them into the street. With a 30-year timeframe, the settlement should allow Caltrans to do much of the work in the course of scheduled maintenance.

The settlement also requires Caltrans to follow federal and state accessibility requirements in its work. Federally, that would mean compliance with the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), standards which apply to buildings and other facilities and includes a section on roadways. The US Access Board has developed much more detailed and useful Public Right of Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG), which are still amid the rulemaking process; the Complete Streets Act of 2009 includes a provision directing the Board to promulgate final standards.

Attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates, representing Californians for Disability Rights, the California Council of the Blind, and the two named plaintiffs with disabilities Ben Rockwell and Dmitri Belser, were joined by AARP in the lawsuit. “AARP Foundation Litigation chose to represent the class members because with 77 million aging Baby Boomers in this country, we need to make sure our communities are places where everyone can live and get around,” said Julie Nepveu, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation Litigation. “This unprecedented settlement helps move us toward that goal.”

Complete Streets