The city is headed toward a court settlement that could end up costing millions of dollars to make sidewalks more usable for people with disabilities.
Seattle is moving toward settling a federal lawsuit that could cost millions of dollars as thousands of curb ramps are built at intersections across the city, to help make sidewalks usable for people with wheelchairs and other mobility issues.
Three men with disabilities sued Seattle in 2015, alleging the city was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act because many sidewalks lack curb ramps — which make crossing the street possible in a wheelchair or scooter — and many of the existing curb ramps are not up to snuff.
Nearly three decades after the ADA became law, and despite what cities often say are the best of intentions, the courtroom has become a crucial way of forcing them into compliance. The Seattle case is among a flurry of ADA lawsuits across the country in recent years, many of which have forced cities to increase their spending on sidewalks and curb ramps by tens of millions of dollars or more.
“For many years I just had terrible experiences with Seattle sidewalks,” said Conrad Reynoldson, one of the plaintiffs. “There are public places I cannot safely go because they don’t have curb ramps.”
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Reynoldson, 30, a disability-rights lawyer who lives in Laurelhurst, has muscular dystrophy and has used a power wheelchair since he was 10.
He said he frequently has to use driveways to cross streets and is sometimes forced to drive his chair down the middle of the street as he navigates between driveways or when a center island without a ramp blocks his way.
“It has a real, direct impact on people’s lives and their safety and it needs to be a priority to make this better,” Reynoldson said.
“I have to swing out into lanes of oncoming bus and car traffic to make it up or down the sidewalk,” David Whedbee, a lawyer and another plaintiff, said when the lawsuit was filed in 2015.
The plaintiffs, represented by Disability Rights Washington, among others, negotiated with the city for more than a year before filing the case, which became a class-action lawsuit last year.
The city, in court filings, denied virtually all of the allegations in the lawsuit, but Mayor Ed Murray said at the time that he was committed to increasing investments in curb ramps and other accessibility upgrades. It costs the city, on average, about $13,000 to build a curb ramp, a figure in line with similar cities nationwide.
In the last few months, both sides have asked to push back their court date, saying they were moving toward a settlement.
The plaintiffs and the city’s attorneys wrote jointly both in October and in February that they “have reached agreement in principle on the major terms of a settlement for class-wide injunctive relief.”
The lawsuit doesn’t seek money, just to force the city into building more curb ramps.
Linda Dardarian, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said that negotiations were “fruitful and ongoing,” and that she hoped for a resolution by this summer.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, the city’s attorneys, the mayor’s office and the City Council all declined to comment on any specifics of a settlement, citing ongoing negotiations.
Seattle is hardly alone in dealing with issues over the accessibility of its sidewalks. Many other cities have settled similar lawsuits with deals that offer a very broad glimpse of what could be coming in Seattle.
Around the U.S.
In 2014, Los Angeles agreed to spend nearly $1.4 billion over 30 years to build curb ramps and fix its dilapidated sidewalks. At the time, lawyers called it the largest such settlement in U.S. history. The lawsuit that forced the city’s hand was brought by Dardarian’s Oakland firm, among others.
In early March, Dardarian’s firm tentatively settled a lawsuit against the city of Long Beach, Calif. The agreement requires Long Beach to fix 16,000 curb ramps over the next 20 years at a cost of up to $50 million. It also requires Long Beach to spend up to $125 million over 30 years on other repairs to make sidewalks more accessible.
In 2009, in response to a lawsuit from disability advocacy groups, the California Department of Transportation agreed to spend $1.1 billion upgrading its sidewalks over a 30-year period.
A similar lawsuit in Oregon last year resulted in the state’s agreeing to make $23 million in curb ramp and sidewalk upgrades this year and next.
Ten years ago, Chicago settled an ADA lawsuit requiring it to spend an additional $50 million over five years, building and upgrading curb ramps and sidewalks.
New York City is currently facing a similar lawsuit, alleging “decades of civil rights violations” committed by the city against people with disabilities.
And the U.S. Justice Department, under a program called Project Civic Access, has reached settlements with 240 cities, counties and other local government agencies — including Yakima County — requiring them to improve accessibility for the disabled.
Steps already taken
While settlement talks are ongoing, Seattle has been working to improve the pedestrian experience for the disabled.
Last year, the city received the results of a $666,000 consultant’s study on the more than 28,000 curb ramps in Seattle. The city has a map and trip planner showing where curb ramps are, where they may be in bad condition and where they’re missing.
And Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) is building 500 to 1,000 curb ramps per year, according to Mike Shaw, the agency’s ADA coordinator. The number does not include ramps built by public utilities or other agencies.
The $930 million Move Seattle levy, approved by voters in 2015, aims to build 250 blocks of new sidewalks by 2024, with corresponding ramp construction and additional ramp repairs.
People with disabilities can request ramps at specific intersections, and SDOT is prioritizing building ramps near transit, government buildings and health-care facilities.
Still, there are somewhere around 40,000 sidewalk ends throughout the city that do not have curb ramps, Shaw said, although that includes intersections that may not need ramps because they’re not pedestrian crossings. SDOT, citing ongoing litigation, declined to give a precise number on how many curb ramps are missing in the city.
And curb ramps, in a place as hilly as Seattle, are neither as easy nor as cheap to build as one might expect. Ramps, to be ADA compliant, must meet a variety of restrictions, on things like slope and direction.
“The slope of the ramp can’t exceed 8.3 percent,” Shaw said. “Well how do you build a ramp that doesn’t exceed 8.3 percent on a street that’s 15 percent?”
Because of terrain issues, the city’s cost per ramp, averaging $13,000, can vary widely, ramp by ramp.
That number is just about in the middle of curb-ramp costs in other major U.S. cities, according to a report commissioned by Seattle last year.
In Boston, the average ramp costs about $9,000. In New York, it’s about $12,000. In Bellevue it’s about $19,000, in San Francisco about $17,000 and in Los Angeles it’s about $20,000.
“For people with disabilities this isn’t a matter of inconvenience,” David Carlson, the director of legal advocacy for Disability Rights Washington, said when they filed the Seattle lawsuit. “It is a matter of basic civil rights to safely and equally access one’s community.”