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Advocate alleging Minnesota discrimination against those with disabilities in limited stimulus spending

Chris Bell of the American Council of the Blind, Minnesota, had hoped that state officials would use a good portion of the federal stimulus money target for transportation to resolve many of the violations in Minnesota of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

For years, he and other advocates for Minnesotans with disabilities have expressed concern — and incredulity — that the state and local governments have failed to make sure the streets, sidewalks and bridges are accessible to everyone, even though it’s required by federal law.

The Minnesota State Council on Disability has even documented numerous violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act — which will cost tens of millions of dollars to repair — and those are just the easily identifiable violations, the agency says. (Disclosure: I do some reporting work for the council at the Capitol during the session.)

So, Bell was outraged to learn that Minnesota transportation officials plan to use only $2 million to address the situation– out of about $500 million in federal stimulus money headed our way for transportation projects.

“This would have been such a great opportunity to begin to change 17 years of neglect by MnDOT in its failure to make sidewalks and street crossings and bridges accessible, in compliance with the ADA,” Bell said.

After trying unsuccessfully to change the decision, Bell has filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department.

The complaint alleges “discrimination with regard to disability” in the allocation of the stimulus funds.

Bell has urged the Minnesota Consortium of Citizens With Disabilities to endorse his complaint, and urged the group’s members — made up of more than 100 groups that serve and advocate for people with disabilities — to file their own complaints with the Justice Department and the Minnesota legislative auditor.

Bell’s complaint alleges that MnDOT does not have an existing ADA plan, which has been required by law since 1995. And while the department has set aside the $2 million for ADA fixes, it’s  “woefully inadequate,” he said.

There are at least eight inaccessible pedestrian bridges — with only stairs, no ramps  — in the metropolitan area, he said, and it will cost between $1 million and $8 million to replace each one.

Joan Willshire, executive director of the Council on Disability, echoed Bell’s concerns in testimony last week at the Transportation Advisory Board last week.

“We strongly urge MnDOT to dedicate a meaningful contribution of [stimulus] funding, a minimum of $30 million statewide, to improve pedestrian and transit accessibility and safety,” she said.

The stimulus money, she said, gives the Twin Cities “the opportunity of a lifetime to address many accessibility and safety issues by improving intersections, upgrading pedestrian signals, curb ramps, bus stops and shelters, improving pedestrian bridges, and repairing and replacing sidewalks and paths.”
Margot Imdieke Cross, transportation specialist for the Council on Disability, said the council has identified problems that would cost at least $44 million, so the allocated $2 million — $1 million for the metro area and $1 for the rest of the state — isn’t nearly enough.

State transportation officials, while acknowledging that ADA compliance is lacking, note that all new construction projects built with the stimulus money — as is the case with all other new construction — will comply with the regulations.

And even though a newly created stakeholders group has recommended that $10 million of the stimulus money be used for ADA deficiencies, state officials said they believe projects worth $2 million are “shovel-ready,” which is one of the requirements for use of the stimulus dollars.

At an April 6 town hall meeting on the how the stimulus money will affect people with disabilities, Tim Mitchell of the Minnesota Department of Transportation discussed plans to repair deficient sidewalks, roadways and bridges. His description starts about 50 minutes into this archived video of the meeting.

Later in the meeting — at the 1 hour, 22 minute point — Bell asked state officials if it’s true that the state is not following the federal ADA law on accessibility.

Replied Mitchell: “The simple answer to that is yes. But I actually would argue that the statement that our system isn’t compliant, however true, is maybe too broadly used in this context. The program we are delivering today is compliant.”

Mitchell said that past projects might not have been compliant, but new ones are.

But that’s not enough, say Bell and others.

“There’s no argument that they are in violation of federal law, and that could easily become a huge liability for the state and counties and cities,” Bell said. “Next year, or the next year or the next year, a federal judge is going to say, ‘You’ve got a $100 million of work to do, and you’ve got to do it right away.’

“Instead, we should use this wonderful opportunity of the federal stimulus money to make  at least some of it happen now.”

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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