In Detroit, a curb ramp is located too far from the corner, and a nearby tree on the west side of the intersection can obstruct drivers who don't expect to encounter a pedestrian crossing. Photo: H.R. Gray

New construction isn't the only type of project that must adhere to Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards. The same rules apply to any alteration to a public right of way, including streets, sidewalks, curbs, and anything that affects building entrances and exits.

This rule of thumb was made abundantly clear just two years after the act became law in 1991. But because the legal and engineering communities don't generally discuss disability-related issues related to the design of upgrades, owners are still racking up millions of dollars in post-completion reconstruction.

For instance, many managers consider resurfacing to be maintenance. Wrong. In 1993 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Kinney vs. Yerusalem found that resurfacing improves a road's usability. According to ADA guidelines, any improvement that enhances usability for the general public must also be accessible to members of the public with ambulatory challenges. Thus, curb ramps must meet the law's standards for new construction to the maximum extent feasible.

On the other hand, the court considered pothole-patching as spot maintenance, and therefore it isn't required to adhere to the law's guidelines.

The challenge lies in satisfying the law's requirement to provide “reasonable accommodation” for disabled pedestrians. Each project is unique, and some situations require drastic changes. By providing a reasonable accommodation plan to all stakeholders, you can ensure your solution will be acceptable before construction begins.

In 1993 the U.S. Appeals Court upheld a decision by the local Federal District Court in Philadelphia that public officials were obligated by the ADA to make curb ramps compliant during a resurfacing project of more than 2,400 miles of city streets. The decision triggered lawsuits across the country when advocacy groups found out. In all the cases, the public works officials had read the section in the ADA guidelines about putting new curb ramps in for new construction, but they did not think it applied to repaving. The courts set the standard for what is altered work. Now, 20 years later, the same missteps are still occurring because managers are unaware of the ruling.

Another such example occurred in Detroit last fall. The city's public works department hadn't installed curb ramps in a particular part of town and a local advocacy group requested wheelchair access.

As you know, each intersection comprises eight curb ramps. In this case, though, the slope leading to a bridge at the east side of the intersection was too steep to accommodate a compliant curb ramp. The road on the south side was also too steep as it sloped toward the intersection.

The advocacy group was invited to view a proposed alteration and deemed it sufficient to fulfill the law's reasonable-accommodation requirement. It may not be perfect, but it's the best that can be done and it provides access to all.

Situations such as those that occurred in Philadelphia and Detroit illustrate the training needed for public works managers. To make decisions about these guidelines, you need to be educated in what to do and how to think “outside the box” to handle each unique situation.