NEW YORK CITY — About 80 percent of the city's curb cuts are not up to federal standards for the disabled even after $243 million in taxpayer funds were shelled out over the last 15 years to build new ramps, according to a recent study by a federal court monitor.
It could take the city another 20 years to bring all the curbs up to the Americans With Disabilities Act regulations and officials only have a vague plan for how they'll get there, city lawyers admitted to an independent disability specialist appointed by federal Judge George Daniels as part of oversight of a 2002 settlement with Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.
Most of 116,530 ramps across the city were either built to ADA standards but not maintained, or were never compliant with the law to begin with, according to a 292-page report submitted to federal court on Aug. 1. written by Special Master Robert L. Burgdorf. Around 4,431 curbs across the city still don't have ramps at all.
Burgdorf largely blames the toothless 2002 settlement with the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association which didn't set up timelines, or monitoring of improved curb cuts and didn't actually require ADA compliance.
"It is quite plausible that the 2002 stipulation may actually have slowed down progress in achieving accessibility of the curb ramps of New York City," Burgdorf wrote, pointing out that in the years since the settlement, the city went from building around 6,667 ramps per year in 2002 down to just around 198 per year in 2016.
"It is apparent that the deficiencies of the 2002 Stipulation are largely to blame of the dearth of ADA-compliant curb ramps," he wrote.
He recommended Daniels demand the city survey all curbs within 90 days, make a detailed plan for how it will install ADA-compliant ramps at all of the 4,800 curbs without ramps in five years and bring all of the estimated 116,530, non-compliant ramps up to snuff in eight years.
He also calls for an independent monitor to make sure the city is keeping up with deadlines. Daniels will review Burgdorf's findings.
The Aug. 1 report echoes what disabled New Yorkers have known for a long time, said Margie Trapani, an education coordinator at Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, whose organization also sued the city in order to come up with a better settlement.
"I had a colleague who fell out of her wheelchair because the curb cut was so bad, I’ve had colleagues who were blind who ended up in the middle of an intersection," she said. "It's really gratifying to have a special master reinforce what we have been saying all along."
"Our hope is that finally the city will get on board with making a plan and sticking to a plan."
In his report, Burgdorf detailed the bureaucratic runaround he got from the city's attorneys and transportation officials as he tried to dig for statistics about how many corners the across the city had ADA-complaint ramps, ramps that weren't up to snuff or had none at all.
After months of correspondence, the attorneys eventually admitted that the only information the city had was from a 2014 survey of 29,265 curbs, about 18 percent of all the curbs, and taking stock of the rest of the curbs would take another ten years.
Scott Gastel, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation pointed to a dramatic increase in funds towards fixing curbs, saying they've budgeted $800 million over the next 10 years, but wouldn't say when all curbs would be ADA compliant. The funds will also go to hiring more than 100 people dedicated to inspection and construction of 140,000 more pedestrian ramps, up from $20 million a year spent on curbs following the 2002 settlement, he said.
Gastel also disputed the $243 million figure cited by the federal monitor. He said the city has spent $350 million since the settlement to install nearly 24,000 new pedestrian ramps that he said were ADA compliant.
"As the nation’s largest municipal transportation agency, NYC DOT takes its responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) very seriously," Gastel said. "Enhancing accessibility is part of the agency mission and each day we work to improve our city’s streets for the disability community."
But Michelle Caiola, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates, the attorney representing CID-NY, said it's proven difficult for the DOT to explain how they've spent those funds.
"They like to talk about the money they’ve spent but it’s not obvious how it’s been spent or how effectively its been used. It’s really hard to track the money,” she said, hoping a judge will side with them and the Special Master and amend the terms of the settlement. "We need timelines and monitoring, not just lip service and promises."
Eastern Paralyzed Veterans didn't return a request for comment immediately.