Saturday, June 16, 2001

Mark S. Edwards used one of his ski poles and grabbed a nearby
pole to pull himself and his wheelchair onto the sidewalk at the
corner of Maunakea and North King streets in 1997. None of
the corners at the intersection is wheelchair-accessible.

2 disabled
men go to court
over curb cuts

The men say the city is falling
behind in its promise to increase
wheelchair access

By Debra Barayuga

The city has had a "miserable" record of providing safe and secure wheelchair curb cuts and ramps accessible to the disabled, say two individuals who sued the city more than five years ago for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a motion filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, plaintiffs Jim McDonnell and Mark Edwards say they have exhausted efforts in getting the city to comply with a consent decree that requires it to make street intersections in Honolulu handicap-accessible.

They are asking the court to order the city to do what it had committed itself to doing in a transition plan prepared more than two years ago as a result of the May 1997 consent decree.

The plan identified 2,889 intersections within Honolulu that needed to be modified and were to be completed by February 2005.

Since the consent decree and completion of the transition plan, only 99 new curb ramps -- 25 intersections' worth -- have been built since 1997, according to the plaintiffs. And not one has been built according to the consent decree and the transition plan.

Forty-four ramps were built in high-priority areas, but they were built as part of previous projects, so the city did not spend any money under the plan to construct them, according to the motion.

The plaintiffs contend the reason for the city's "shocking noncompliance and woeful effort" is because the city managing director has stopped funding for construction.

Managing Director Ben Lee said he sympathizes with the disabled and acknowledged that the city is behind with the plan, but said the city is committed to making intersections handicap-accessible under the law. "We have been working as hard and fast as we can to get the job done," he said.

The city did not realize at the time it entered into the decree that it was not simply a matter of making cuts and ramps into the curbs and sidewalks, he said.

What was projected to be a $50 million project ballooned to more than $122 million when the city realized it also had to relocate street lights, fire hydrants, traffic control boxes, storm drains and utilities and do related construction work such as repaving and re-striping to accommodate the ramps.

"What sounded like we were just putting in an 8- to 12-foot wheelchair ramp, we are now reconstructing a street intersection," Lee said. "It is a much, much bigger job than anybody every imagined."

What makes the project more complicated is that each street corner is custom-designed and requires individual surveys. One intersection may have a cluster that includes a traffic light, traffic control box, push-button pole or fire hydrant, while others may not. Also, not all streets can be assumed to be level and flat.

In communities such as Chinatown where the sidewalks are narrow, it is an engineering challenge to comply with federal guidelines, Lee said.

He disputes the plaintiff's contention that no money has been spent on constructing the ramps, saying the city has appropriated $24 million in the past four years to the "massive undertaking."

Construction projects are going out to bid shortly or have already been put out to bid, he said.

A ramp typically costs $15,000 or more depending on its location. But when all other costs to relocate utilities above and below ground are considered, "we're talking anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 per intersection, probably more," Lee said.

The plaintiffs contend that rather than following the transition plan, the city has been constructing ramps only when other projects involving that same street corner come up -- a "haphazard" approach that is contrary to the plan.

Lee defended the city's actions, saying they do not want to tear up a street multiple times for multiple projects. "We wait until we can do everything, including the ramps."

The city is expected to propose to the court that the transition plan be extended to an eight-year plan to build 7,800 ramps, Lee said.

A hearing on the plaintiffs' motion will be heard Aug. 6.

E-mail to City Desk

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