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Falls Road upgrades leave disabled residents with no place to go

Laws and LegislationHighway and Road TransportationBuilding MaterialU.S. Senate

New curb cuts to improve handicapped access on Falls Road near Mount Washington will get folks only so far.

Say, about 20 feet.

Light poles, street signs and hydrants obstruct the sidewalks, preventing anyone in a wheelchair or walker from continuing very far beyond the aprons of new concrete that blend the sidewalk down into the street.

"When I saw them putting in the curb cuts, I thought, 'Oh, good.' But when the work was done, I thought, 'What's the point? You can't go anywhere,'" said Ben Dubin, an accessibility advocate who lives in Baltimore County.

The Americans With Disabilities Act passed 22 years ago. Its guidelines set a minimum sidewalk width of 36 inches. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials urges 60-inch sidewalks.

But the concrete path beyond the curb cut at Appleby Avenue and Falls Road is squeezed by a light pole and measures just 18 inches wide. At Asbury Road, a street sign shaves the sidewalk down to 32 inches. A fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk at Washingtonville Drive reduces the walkway to 26 inches.

Traveling farther south on Falls Road, Smith Avenue lacks curb cuts, but a stone's throw away, Kelly Avenue has them.

"If you don't know the area — and we have clients like that — you might get to the end of a street and you're stuck," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center. "It's horrible. You had no way of knowing you were on a path to nowhere."

Lawsuits elsewhere by handicapped residents have led to settlements in the millions of dollars, from New York City to Los Angeles, and to improved accessibility.

"We're way past the time when you can act like you don't know that," she said. "They know better."

During the repaving of Falls Road after major water main construction, the city Department of Transportation threw in the curb cuts, about eight of them, at $2,000 a pop.

While the road was paved with good intentions, the sidewalks got kicked to the curb, city officials acknowledge.

Kirkland Gabriel, the city's engineer on the project, said the work wasn't intended to be a total reconstruction.

"Sidewalks were not in the scope of the project, and we didn't have the funding," Gabriel said. "If we are putting in sidewalks, we do make them ADA-compliant."

The problem, engineers and Dubin agree, is the road itself.

"Falls Road is very unique, a mixture of business and residential, with so many slopes and grades. We don't have the right-of-way to widen the sidewalks," Gabriel said. "There's almost nothing we can really do."

The curb cuts at least provide access to the side streets, he said.

But Young said that by installing curb cuts, the city altered the sidewalk and now has a legal obligation to upgrade the sidewalk.

"They've only done half the job," she said. "Why can't they expand the sidewalk out toward the street? Pouring a little more concrete isn't that expensive."

Cathy Raggio, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, said the situation is not unusual.

"It happens in cities and towns throughout the country. As a wheelchair user, I understand people's frustrations," Raggio said. "It's a challenge any time you're altering an existing structure. It's easier to add things when you're building from scratch than to add on later."

Dubin said he isn't picking on the city. During a walk along Falls Road, he pointed out a stop for the No. 60 bus on the northbound side of the road at Lakeside Drive, just over the city-county line. The sidewalk leading to the stop is just 28 inches wide.

"If someone in a wheelchair comes up from the Falls Road light rail stop, they get here and they can't get any farther," Dubin said. "There's a place just down the hill that would be a much better stop. It's just common sense."

The Dubin family is no stranger to the fight for rights for those with disabilities.

A certified public accountant, Dubin has been on the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities for a dozen years and is its vice chairman.

When she was 12 years old, his profoundly deaf daughter, Rachel Dubin, asked a U.S. Senate committee in 1989 to "please fund deaf research as generously as you can." In 2001, she stood behind then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening as he signed into law bills to require health insurers to cover hearing aids for children as prescribed by an audiologist and to establish a loan program making the aids available even to those without insurance.

"You have to speak up," Ben Dubin said.

Progress is being made.

Just last month, Annapolis officials and the State Highway Administration celebrated the completion of nearly two miles of sidewalk reconstruction that allows someone in a wheelchair to travel from downtown to the city line. The $1.8 million project replaced narrow sidewalks with five-foot-wide sidewalks, installed curb ramps, relocated utilities and constructed sidewalk "bump outs" to provide a safe pedestrian travel path around obstacles that could not be relocated.

Last year, the SHA's ADA Sidewalk program spent $19.8 million to improve sidewalks and address ADA issues.

But Gabriel doesn't think that Falls Road sidewalks — which would require city, not state, funding — will be upgraded any time soon.

"Unless the economy turns around and money falls from the sky, it is what it is," he said.

For people with disabilities traveling along Falls Road, that means you can't get there from here.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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