Access for disabled people an issue for Tulsa

Americas, April 17 2011

Tulsa, Oklahoma: Tulsa’s self-evaluation of its Americans with Disabilities Act compliance has revealed nearly $23 million in necessary modifications for public buildings, parks, sidewalks, intersections and bus stops.

The city’s initial transition plan was completed two years after the passage of the 1990 civil rights law mandating equal access for disabled individuals to public facilities, programs and services.

But city officials said Tulsa’s landscape has changed significantly and the law has been amended multiple times since then.

“We are trying not only to address the law but also the spirit of the law,” said Michael Smith, compliance investigations administrator for the city’s Human Rights Department.

The evaluation provides a list of needed changes, everything from installing disabled-accessible toilet stalls, drinking fountains and public transaction counters in some city buildings to providing accessible parking spaces and paths to facilities in parks.

In the city, many curb ramps are noncompliant; access to pedestrian-push buttons for traffic signals is problematic; and sidewalks are cracked and broken.

A lot of the issues predate the ADA, Smith said, but some areas now lack compliance with amendments to the law.

According to Kimley-Horn & Associates, the consulting firm hired to do the study, Tulsa’s situation is not unusual.

“We are average and getting better,” Smith said. “I don’t know that we could ever do enough, but we’ve been very focused on improving things around the city.”

Smith joined the city’s Human Rights Department in 2008 and talked to leaders about doing an ADA evaluation.

But then something happened that sped up the process – between October 2008 and March 2009, 44 complaints were filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation about Tulsa’s compliance issues.

“We were starting off gradually, but when those complaints came in we got real serious about it,” Smith said.

“There have been some communities that have sloughed this off, didn’t treat it as a big deal and have ended up receiving a visit from the (U.S.) Department of Justice. That’s not something we would ever want.”

Public Works officials allocated $390,000 from the 2001 and ’06 third-penny sales tax packages to hire a consulting firm, and by February 2010 the evaluation was under way.

The consultants not only conducted inspections but also gathered feedback from Tulsa’s disabled community about the challenges they face.

The process wrapped up earlier this year, and the evaluation report is now in draft form.

Brent Stout of Public Works’ Engineering Services said the report will be submitted to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission for a work study on Wednesday. A public hearing will address the study on May 4.

Final adoption by the City Council for it to become a part of the city’s comprehensive plan should happen before the end of May, he said.

Improvements, however, will not happen right away. The report includes a 30-year timeline for implementation.

By devoting $3.2 million annually in the first decade, $2.6 million annually in the second and $1.9 million in the third, slowly all of it will be done – and then, it likely will be time for another evaluation.

The city has no funding specifically earmarked for these ADA-related improvements, Stout said.

Some that are tied to streets can be worked into related projects included in the ongoing Fix Our Streets initiative, he said.

Beyond that, city leaders will have to figure out how to financially address them, Stout said. That could be through future bond issues, sales-tax packages, grants or private dollars.

The city recently applied for $3.1 million in federal transportation enhancement funding for this effort.

“Not having the money will not be an excuse,” Stout said.

But, Smith said, “As long as we have a plan in place and are working toward that plan, we are in good shape.”

Tulsa is now being held up by federal officials to other cities as a model for taking the right steps, he said.

While costly, providing the required access should be important to all Tulsans, said Matt Liechti, Public Works’ Engineering Services planning and coordination manager.

“We are temporary able-bodies,” he said. “This is an aging population.

“Fortunately, I don’t have a physical disability at this time, but there probably will be a time in my life when I do. This is not only good for our disabled community of today but also of the future.”


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