It all stemmed from the power of protest. Jordan Ohlde, a Bend man confined to a wheelchair, is one of eight plaintiffs who, along with the Association of Oregon Centers for Independent Living (AOCIL) brought a landmark case against the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to make state street crossings safer.
For Ohlde, who suffers from cerebral palsy, it was the missing curb ramps on Greenwood Avenue that forced him to wheel his chair into the bike lane of what Bendites know is a very busy highway. On March 27, a U.S District Court approved a settlement which requires ODOT to make street crossings safer across the entire state highway system. "I'm excited that they decided so quickly," says Ohlde. "It's going to make Bend more reliable for all citizens, not only for those using wheelchairs, but those who use walkers and strollers."
Upgrades and Installations
Specifically, ODOT must install missing or non-compliant curb ramps and upgrade crossing signals. With a whopping 15,000 identified locations, the organization has a steady timeline to fix the issue; 30 percent within five years and 75 percent within 10 years, with total project completion in 15 years. Elizabeth Seaberry, community specialist for Disability Rights Oregon, says, "These improvements are critical for connecting parts of communities that have been difficult or unsafe to access and for enhancing safety along highways...The agreement (is) the largest commitment to accessible transportation in state history."
"It has been 23 years since the courts made it clear that fixing curb ramps is part of what you have to do when building or resurfacing roadways," says Kathy Wilde, litigation director for Disability Rights Oregon. "But we are talking about 15,000 curb ramp locations throughout the state – and many locations have more than one curb ramp." She noted that during the settlement negotiations, Disability Rights Oregon pushed for a shorter time frame, but that ODOT "was adamant it just wasn't possible." She noted that "any further delay is frustrating," and hopes that the "quick-hit" remedy sites that plaintiffs have identified will be targeted first.
"We wanted to do something that was realistic but aggressive," says Tom Fuller communications section manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). The state will use an initial investment of $5 million to tackle the issues that have been flagged as high priority by the plaintiffs and AOCIL, including replacing existing curbs that are too steep, which put wheelchair users at risk of losing control. The project will also replace lips at the bottom of ramps that are deemed too high, which may isolate users onto the street.
ODOT has designated another $18 million for spending on curb ramps and other accessibility features from 2018 onward. "We have put together a pretty large group in the agency to oversee this," says Fuller, who noted that there is now a full-time ODOT employee who will oversee the project's implementation. "It's a big job; it will become a piece of people's jobs here at the department. We're all in."
City moving faster than state
The City of Bend began making its streets accessible in 2004 when the Project Civic Access Settlement Agreement was signed with the U.S. Department of Justice, brought on by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA put into law safeguards for those facing disabilities including curb ramps and crossing signals. Still, Disability Rights Oregon says that, "More than two decades after the ADA went into effect, individuals with physical disabilities across Oregon still found that they were barred from some of the most important streets of their cities and towns by badly-constructed or missing curb ramps."
Since 2008, Bend has been moving toward more accessible infrastructure. Karin Morris, accessibility manager for the city of Bend, says it "improves approximately 200 curb ramps annually." She also noted the implementation of a barrier removal request process that began in 2010 which "allows individuals with disabilities to notify the City when they encounter a barrier to travel in the public right-of-way." She also pointed to recent sidewalk initiatives which are bettering accessibility, including the South Third Street Pedestrian Project, the Galveston Corridor Project, the 14th Street Corridor Project and Wilson Avenue. The South Third Street Project, for example, aims to offer a safe and continuous pedestrian corridor in a high-traffic area which previously has had a poor rating for pedestrian accessibility.
ODOT just implemented the same complaint model the City has been using for seven years. Wilde, of Disability Rights Oregon urges citizens who notice inefficiencies to lodge a complaint through ODOT's website so that they may recognize priorities.
Barry Fox-Quamme, board president of the Association of Oregon Centers for Independent Living, which helped bring the suit to court, commented, "The voices of people with disabilities play a vital role for achieving enduring systems change."
In the end, Wilde is hopeful that the timelines of completing 75 percent of the project in 10 years will be met. "This landmark agreement means people who use wheelchairs won't be forced to choose between navigating their chairs in traffic on busy highways or remaining isolated in their homes. For people with physical disabilities, being able to safely cross the street is prerequisite for being integrated into their communities," said Wilde. "From trips to the grocery store to traveling to doctor's appointments and socializing with friends, this agreement will enable more Oregonians with physical disabilities to participate fully in community life."