The St. Louis County Board is expected to approve a long-term plan Tuesday intended to bring sidewalks, curb ramps and pedestrian signals into federal compliance with disability law across the next 25 years at an estimated current cost of roughly $25 million.
The plan, first introduced last summer, figures to bring the county into full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Not adopting a plan would prevent the county from receiving federal highway dollars.
“So the big question is how we’re going to accomplish it,” St. Louis County traffic engineer Vic Lund said. “We’re going to rely on our normal capital improvement projects, but we’re also contemplating having stand-alone ADA improvement projects.”
Currently, based on a 2018 self-audit of pedestrian infrastructure, 53.2 out of 70 miles of sidewalks (76%), 951 of 1,510 curb ramps (63%) and 22 of 39 traffic control signals (56%) remain not fully compliant.
The county has plans for roughly $50 million in roadway projects this year, and for years now any new roadway project that features coexisting pedestrian infrastructure has also automatically upgraded its pedestrian components.
Stand-alone projects would be considered for places and communities that don’t feature any scheduled capital improvement projects in the next five to 10 years.
“Year by year we’ll evaluate: ‘Do we have the capacity to do a stand-alone ADA project? Do we have locations to justify it?’” Lund said.
For the five-year period from 2014-18, St. Louis County completed roughly $2.5 million in work to improve pedestrian facilities on county roadways, the plan said. For the current five-year time period from 2019-23, St. Louis County anticipated completing an estimated $2.2 million in work, the plan said, representing 4.7 miles of sidewalk and 223 curb ramps. That plan does not include any stand-alone projects that could be adopted going forward.
At first blush, the sheer amount of out-of-compliance sidewalks, curbs and signals for people who are vision impaired or otherwise physically disabled can appear alarming, but Lund explained the reasons for that. While ADA became law in 1990, under the George H.W. Bush presidency, it wasn’t until around 2010 that the federal government got serious about enforcing its guidelines, Lund said.
Also, the standards for ADA compliance have only just solidified in recent years. Some pedestrian infrastructure built 10 years ago could be considered out of compliance by today’s standards, he said, noting that slope of landing areas and locations of push-button signals have varied until recently.
“Now, we know exactly where locations are that are compliant or not compliant,” Lund said. “It’s been a tricky thing. It sounds simple from a 10,000-foot level, but when you start getting into the details, there’s a lot more to it.”
Lund said places like Duluth, Hermantown, Chisholm, Ely and Meadowlands have all seen more recent updates. For instance, last summer an $11.4 million full reconstruction of 0.8 miles of Woodland Avenue (County Road 9) from Anoka Street to Calvary Road featured all new pedestrian infrastructure.
“You complete a project like that — curb ramp on every corner, sidewalk on both sides — and it takes a big percentage off,” Lund said.
More than anywhere, Eveleth has “taken the bull by the horns and gone with it," he said.
"Eveleth has been progressive on ADA improvements," Lund said. "They work with us, but lead the project. We just cost participate."
Other places haven’t seen work in 10 or 20 years. But stand-alone projects will be highly scrutinized, given that the sidewalk, curb and gutter are often tied in with the roadway, making it difficult to simply say, "We’re going to redo a sidewalk."
“It isn’t straightforward because it’s all integrated,” Lund said.
Officially dubbed the St. Louis County ADA Transition Plan, it will be good for five years until an update is required. The plan is featured on the County Board’s consent agenda, and will likely not include any public discussion.
Efforts at public outreach in the lead-up to the final plan were poorly received, Lund said, with scant public input or attendance at public meetings.
Regarding pedestrian infrastructure: “The biggest feedback we get,” Lund said, “is about snow removal.”