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Caltrans Settles Class Action Disability-Access Lawsuit

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 07, 2010 - 08:25:00 AM
Dmitri Belser, one of many disabled who will be affected by Caltrans’ Disabilities Act settlement to improve sidewalk access, crosses the intersection at San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way which, until a year ago, lacked a curb ramp and a yellow detectable warning panel.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Dmitri Belser, one of many disabled who will be affected by Caltrans’ Disabilities Act settlement to improve sidewalk access, crosses the intersection at San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way which, until a year ago, lacked a curb ramp and a yellow detectable warning panel.

Berkeley resident Dmitri Belser wants a curb ramp on every street in the country. That dream may not come true anytime soon, but Belser, who is legally blind, has reason to feel encouraged. 

In a landmark achievement for disability rights advocates, Caltrans announced Dec. 22 a billion-dollar settlement agreement to improve sidewalk access.  

The lawsuit, filed by Californians for Disability Rights, the California Council of the Blind, Long Beach resident Ben Rockwell and Belser, alleged a denial of access for mobility-impaired and visually impaired individuals to Caltrans sidewalks and Park-and-Ride facilities because of a lack of curb ramps and detectable warnings, as well as narrow sidewalks and uneven and broken pavements.  

Rockwell is a wheelchair user while Belser, who serves on Berkeley’s Commission on Disability and is the president of the Ed Roberts Campus—a soon-to-be-opened one-stop facility for disability services in South Berkeley—was diagnosed with vision impairment when he was 23. 

Mary-Lee Kimber, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, the Berkeley nonprofit legal center which filed the class action suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, called the settlement a huge step forward in improving barriers to disability access.  

“It’s a linchpin for sidewalk access,” she said. “Its scope is unprecedented.”  

Kimber said the settlement amount was the largest Americans with Disabilities Act settlement involving architectural barriers to date.  

Under the proposed agreement, Caltrans has agreed to spend $1.1 billion over the next 30 years, starting as soon as the courts sign off on it. The final court approval is not expected to take place before April 2010.  

Caltrans, which owns and maintains California’s state highways, plans to spend $25 million every year for the first five years, followed by $35 million annually for the next decade.  

Thereafter, Caltrans will allocate $40 million per year for a period of 10 years and $45 million per year for an additional five years.  

“Caltrans is committed to addressing the mobility needs of all Californians and takes seriously its responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Caltrans Director Randy Iwasaki in a statement.  

Kimber said the improvements will affect sidewalks and Park-and-Ride facilities located next to public transportation hubs, even though the case was primarily against faulty sidewalks, specifically Ashby Avenue (Highway 13) and San Pablo Avenue (Highway 123) in Berkeley and the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, all of which Caltrans is responsible for.  

Tens of thousands of access barriers throughout the Caltrans sidewalk system and Park-and-Rides will be removed as a result of the agreement.  

“This settlement is a win-win. It is a victory for all Californians—taxpayers and the disability community who have a right to equal access to all walkways,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. “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 lawsuit requires Caltrans to install curb ramps as well as install detectable warnings, such as yellow panels with bumps, so that visually impaired pedestrians can determine where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.  

The improvements will not be limited to Berkeley and Long Beach, Kimber said. Twenty-five hundred miles of sidewalk and Park-and-Ride facilities across the state that are owned or maintained by Caltrans will benefit from it.  

“This will help improve the life of disabled people all over California,” she said. “We commend Caltrans for arriving at this decision. The litigation was hard fought for over three years but we hope it will set a model for other public entities.”  

Belser said he was very happy to hear the news.  

“It took a long time but I am glad Caltrans has finally agreed to comply with the law,” he said. “I walk around Berkeley a lot and most of the city is in good shape, but walking on Ashby and San Pablo feels like I am walking in a different city.”  

Belser said Ashby Avenue, which was recently named by a national transportation research group as the second most-deteriorated section of roadway in the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area, does not have enough detectable warnings or curb ramps.  

Belser said it is a shame that such basic necessities are missing in Berkeley, the birthplace of the disability rights movement, which led the way for the rest of the country in installing curb ramps for disability access. 

He said he decided to file the lawsuit after almost getting hit by a car at the intersection of Ashby and Martin Luther king Jr. Way three years ago.  

“I was standing where I thought was safe—for blind people we like to know when the edge of the curb is a yellow truncated dome,” he said. “I though I was standing on the curb, but I was actually standing on the gutter. A car sped by and knocked my cane out of my hand. I wasn’t hurt but it scared the crap out of me.”  

Belser said he complained to Caltrans and soon after the city of Berkeley installed detectable warnings at that intersection.  

Kimber said that when Disability Rights Advocates had initially contacted Caltrans, they had not planned on filing a lawsuit.  

“We had discussed the problem with them to arrive at some kind of a solution, but when that did not work we had to file,” she said. 

Belser said that he was surprised that Caltrans had put up a fight. 

“I thought they would agree to all the improvements,” he said. “But instead they hired all these lawyers and incurred a lot of legal fees. Ultimately we never went to trial.” 

Standing on the intersection of San Pablo and Dwight Way Tuesday, Belser pointed out a problematic intersection that had been rebuilt a year ago. 

“Wheelchair users like curbed ramps,” he said. “Blind people like the yellow detectable warnings. When my cane hits it, it makes a sound, letting me know it’s there.” 

He used his cane to find a cracked sidewalk which he said was rampant on both Ashby as well as San Pablo. 

“The city usually does a better job than Caltrans in fixing broken sidewalks,” he said. “Caltrans just seems to let the problem persist.” 

Local disability advocate and wheelchair user Fred Lupke was struck and killed by a car in 2003 when uneven sidewalks along Ashby Avenue forced him into the street between Harper and Ellis streets. 

Belser said that although most of San Pablo had been upgraded in recent years, there were intersections on Ashby that were still missing detectable warnings or curb ramps. 

“Although the ADA passed in 1991, not all sidewalks are safe for disabled people,” he said. “I know the state has a budget problem and it’s not possible to upgrade hundreds and hundreds of miles of road, but I just want it to be safe out there for everyone.”