13 investigates ABQ’s $50M headache

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(This article was originally published on November 11, 2014)

There is something terribly wrong on the streets of Albuquerque. It is right out in the open and to the untrained eye nothing seems out of place.

Once you know what to look for, you’ll see hundreds of federal violations throughout the city. There are so many violations it will likely take decades to fix them all, and then there’s the price tag.

“It’s $50 million. Five…zero, $50 million,” former municipal development director Mike Riordan said

The money surrounds the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act is a federal statute requiring all public accommodations including streets, curbs and sidewalks be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.

Riordan has since been promoted to the mayor’s office. When asked if ADA compliance is voluntary, Riordan said “Absolutely not. It’s a federal mandate that we must be ADA compliant.”

At 15th Street and Los Alamos, the city spent $4,000 in 2003 constructing a wheelchair accessible curb, ramp and sidewalk. However, someone apparently failed to notice the telephone pole sticking out in the middle of the sidewalk.

“They should have went ahead and dealt with the pole,” Santa Fe based disabilities expert, Andy Winnegar, said.

It is not just utility poles. In 2003, the city spent thousands renovating San Carlos and Raynolds to make it ADA compliant. However, the construction was flawed.

To Albuquerque businessman Larry Maestas, the fireplug found in the middle of the sidewalk might as well be a brick wall.

“People don’t realize that sometimes just a fireplug like this can be an obstacle for somebody like me. But it is and it’s not that that obstacle can’t be figured out to go around it. It just creates more problems in my life,” Maestas said.

Across the street, crews spent a lot of taxpayer money renovating the sidewalk and curb to make it ADA accessible. However, the city placed a utility guy wire right in the middle of the ramp.

“This is very unusual and they had to go out of their way to make it not accessible,” Hope Reed with the governor’s Commission on Disability said. “They made a curb ramp and then they put a barrier right in the middle of the curb ramp so people can’t get around it.”

Now, PNM will be asked to move the wire.

ADA is very specific. Not only must public accommodations be free from obstructions, they also must provide easy access. The slope of a wheelchair ramp is prescribed by law. At Silver and Raynolds, Winnegar said the slope was not constructed correctly.

“It’s not safe and usable… It’s too steep.” Winnegar said. “Instead of keeping the grade under 8.3 they took the grade up to 11.7, 11.4. So if you are self-propelling in a manual chair you are going to have a lot of difficulty getting up there.”

City construction crews apparently slapped down some concrete and called it a wheelchair ramp.

“I think they were trying to save some money [in 2003]… and that’s not how we would do it today,” Riordan said. “It’s never a reason…that you didn’t do something.”

Not only is the slope of a ramp dictated by ADA, so is the width. An accessible path must be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker. For example, the ramp at Pasquale and Los Alamos is too narrow.

This summer, city crews also renovated Broadway and Coal to make it ADA accessible, or did they?

“You can’t get a wheelchair through here,” Winnegar said. “This is 28 inches only…now you can’t get access. So [when] you come off the street here, you’re stuck.”

According to Riordan, the ramp at 12th Street and Gold is not compliant either. The ramp was constructed in 2003. At the time a tree stood at the corner of the sidewalk. Today the tree is just a stump and the ramp is still not ADA compliant.

“At the time in 2003 our crews could have knocked on the door and said we’re going to cut your tree down and built a fully compliant sidewalk ramp,” Riordan said. “At the time their judgment call was, it’s a tree, we want to keep it lets build around it. Obviously today if we just come across it as a stump we would grind the stump out and we would build it compliant.”

This is just one example.

Compliance with ADA is often a challenge. Many of Albuquerque’s streets and sidewalks are in older neighborhoods built decades before the 1990 disabilities act.

The school crosswalk at San Felipe School was built years ago. In order to have ADA accessibility, there is a ramp on the sidewalk by the school. However, just across the street, the crosswalk leads into a curb.

“Some portion of our population cannot maneuver over an eight inch curb and that’s why we want to build ramps,” Riordan said.

The city is up against walls, trees, roots, poles, signs, fire hydrants and private property rights. However, ADA is mandatory and compliance takes time and money.

It will cost taxpayers an estimated, $16 million just to address ADA issues in southwest Albuquerque.

“If somebody could switch my life for one week, live in a wheelchair for a week and go through the world the way I have to live it…and try to figure out how I’m going to get past this obstacle or how I’m going to get up this narrow ramp…then they would see the world a lot differently,” Maestas said.

Since ADA became law 24 years ago, much of Albuquerque today is compliant. However, the city has a long way to go and there simply isn’t enough money in the budget to address the hundreds of violations still out there.

“I should be able to be just like you, just like any other person that comes down here and be able to walk down any street go through any door go up any ramp and have equal access just like everybody else,” Maestas said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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