Todd Kemery remembers the challenge of navigating a sidewalk in a wheelchair years ago. It might have a ramp on one end and a curb on the other, requiring him to either find a driveway to cross the street or go back.
"You don't have to look very hard to find these kinds of issues" even today, said Kemery, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Now, decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, many suburbs are finally taking action to meet federal infrastructure standards to make streets, sidewalks and intersections easier for people with disabilities to use.
From Apple Valley to St. Louis Park, officials say they're drawing up "ADA transition plans" to ensure better accessibility for all. A more compelling factor, however, may be a veiled threat from federal and state authorities that cities won't be eligible to get federal funding for transportation projects until they develop a plan.
"Not only is it the right thing to do, it's been how many years since [the ADA] was passed?" said Dan Erickson, state aid engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's metro district.
MnDOT has been trying to deliver the message, which came down from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, over the last couple of years, Erickson said.
The funding in question flows from the feds to Minnesota, where it is divvied up in two pots of money — one for MnDOT and another for groups of local officials that work with MnDOT to decide which projects to fund.
In the Twin Cities, the Metropolitan Council works with local officials and MnDOT to make those recommendations, said Kristine Elwood, MnDOT's deputy state aid engineer.
At the federal government's urging, the Met Council's transportation advisory board has stipulated that any city vying for this year's round of funding (for projects in 2022-23) must have a plan in place or in progress, said Nick Thompson, the council's transportation services director. Many types of projects, from road expansions to trail construction and bridge repairs, are eligible for funds, Erickson said.
Advocates for those with disabilities say it's about time that cities get up to speed on the ADA. Making transition plans is "arguably the most important step" on that path, said David Fenley, ADA director for the Minnesota Council on Disability. If plans were done years ago, more progress might have been made by now.
"It really has been kind of shoved under the rug," Fenley said of the ADA. "The momentum died down."
What city officials discover while preparing the plans can be daunting. Burnsville officials, who made their plan in 2017, found that 163 of the city's pedestrian curb ramps were noncompliant and 772 were partly compliant. Fixing everything immediately would have cost around $4 million, said Jeff Radick, Burnsville's assistant public works director.
Nevertheless, the prospect of losing out on federal money remains a good motivator.
"It had always been on our work plan as something to get completed," said Julie Long, city engineer in Bloomington, which finished its plan in November 2016. "We had heard rumblings that federal aid dollars would not be granted if you didn't have one, so I think that helped us."
A lack of awareness
The ADA, signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, required all public entities with more than 50 employees to make a transition plan by July 1992 and comply within a few years. Many didn't do so — but there's no administrative body to enforce the ADA, Fenley said.
The law instead is enforced through complaints, lawsuits or via rulings by the U.S. Department of Justice or the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Fenley said. There's apparently no list of which cities have plans in place and which don't.
Transportation requirements apply to areas in the public right of way: pedestrian ramps with appropriate slopes, sidewalks with truncated domes to help visually impaired pedestrians know when they're near a drop-off or street, and traffic signals that include an audio component.
Creating a plan includes designating someone to field complaints, making an inventory of every curb ramp, trail, and sidewalk in the city, and determining how and when the city can improve its infrastructure. Cities can make the changes over time, as road projects occur.
Many cities have been implementing ADA mandates, but without a road map of what and when, said Anita Benson, project manager at Burnsville-based Stonebrooke Engineering, a firm that has helped South St. Paul and Prior Lake with their plans. Others didn't know exactly what to do, she said, since the details are buried deep inside the law.
"I don't think there was the awareness or the knowledge of it," Benson said. Most cities set a goal of completing everything in 20 years, she said.
Better for everyone
But things are getting better statewide, especially in the last few years, said Burnsville's Radick. "If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have said there are a lot of stragglers," he said.
The threat of lawsuits has something to do with the new push to comply, several officials said.
A staffer with the League of Minnesota Cities visited Burnsville recently to advise officials on how to comply with the ADA, Radick said. "Of course they're interested — they insure the city against lawsuits," he said.
The League of Minnesota Cities put on nine training sessions around the state last spring to educate city officials on the ADA, said Rachel Carlson, the league's loss control manager.
Debra Heiser, St. Louis Park's engineering director, said the city finished its plan last spring and is now cataloging its 2,600 pedestrian ramps to check if they're compliant.
Hearing from MnDOT that recipients of federal funding must have transition plans in place encouraged the city to make its plan sooner rather than later, she said.
ADA compliance can be especially challenging in a developed city, because mature trees, yards and utility poles must be worked around.
But making streets and sidewalks safer for pedestrians also emerged as a priority when St. Louis Park was compiling its 2040 comprehensive plan, she said.
"By planning for ADA transition and creating spaces and safety for our most vulnerable users, we're making it better for everyone," Heiser said.