Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Just Wait

Yesterday I sent the letter copied below to The Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights. I am not proud of this, but I think it needed to be done. Perhaps the term “Right-of-way” is so simple that people have forgotten the meaning. I moved to this place because I am blind and can’t drive – and yet, even here it is difficult for a disabled person to get around. “Right –of-way” refers to vehicles, not people.

If MCDOT and MDSHA can’t be depended on to make ROWs accessible for all, where can a guy like me turn? I am not a member of any group. I don’t have a lawyer – or money for one. My agenda is plain to see. This is personal, although I am saying what many would say if they were asked. A long time ago I went to a retail training seminar where they taught the 1-99 ratio for complaints. For every person who complains, there are 99 people who are just as dissatisfied but don’t complain. Because sidewalks and pedestrian access can be so mundane, I bet the ration for complaints is more like 1-999. Relying on complaints before planning infrastructure improvements is ludicrous. This approach relies heavily on people who are already dealing with disabilities, hard times, or busy lives. Does it really take a blind man to see what MCDOT and MDSHA can’t see? Or, are they just determined not to recognize the problem?

How many people walk and take transit in Silver Spring? A lot. How many of them do so voluntarily? Some, to be sure, but you might be surprised at the number of people who do it because they have no choice. Some are too poor. Others are disabled, or elderly. Children make up a large portion of the pedestrian population too. For many people sidewalks are the only access to the world. That shouldn’t be so difficult to understand - or so easy to forget. To paraphrase Cesar Chavez; It’s not about the sidewalks and curb cuts. It’s about the people.

I made my first “Sidewalk Call” to the County back in 1996. Fourteen years later, and I am still being told WAIT. WAIT another 30 years for the next time we change the utility poles. WAIT for MDSHA to actually get involved in the process of building pedestrian-accessible ROWs – and not simply respond to complaints. WAIT for laws and enforcement that prohibit actions that create dangerous situations for pedestrians. WAIT for change. WAIT until the next Pedestrian Safety Meeting. Wait, Wait, WAIT.

WAIT to be treated as if you have as much right to access on your own street as anyone who drives down it.

I have been called a curmudgeon by people at MCDOT - which I think highlights the situation perfectly. One definition of curmudgeon is: a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. I never thought of myself as any of these things – at least, not perpetually. The truth is I was called this because that is how I am forced to deal with MCDOT and MDSHA. They will only act on complaints, but they can’t stand getting complaints. They call the people who use the infrastructure names when they report on the situation too often or too forcefully. I heard in a meeting once that MCDOT gets too many complaints to seriously address them all. It is no wonder that pedestrians with problems get frustrated and upset with the current approach. It is really no approach at all.
I am including the text of my brief complaint without the photos – which you have already seen.

March 1, 2010

Throughout Montgomery County, MD there are utility poles in the middle of sidewalks that make access for people with disabilities difficult or impossible. These poles are ubiquitous, and create obstructions for people with disabilities, like myself all over Montgomery County and the State of Maryland.

I I have complained about these poles to The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), and the Maryland State Highway Administration (MDSHA) many times over the last ten years. Always, I was told that moving these poles was too expensive, and therefore not an option. Always, I would reply – “Well, when they DO replace them, they need to be done properly to create access.”

On December 1, 2009, I came home to find that many of the utility poles on my street had white “Xs” painted on them. I called my Councilmember’s office and MCDOT, but no one could tell me what the markings meant.

The following day, I came home to find a man with a concrete saw eyeing the pole in front of my house. We talked for some time, and he told me that he worked for a contractor who was replacing all of the poles. He also made it clear that he was the person who was placing the new poles, and that he had no idea what ADA is. He said that the contractor was also replacing poles on Piney Branch Rd., Dale Dr., and other streets in the neighborhood – dozens of poles on both MCDOT and MDSHA ROW.

I made frantic calls to MCDOT, and after threatening to get in the hole to stop them, PEPCO agreed to stop the project on my street. While they negotiated with MCDOT on how to fix my street,they continued on other streets. The replacement pole was placed in front of my house. The contractor said he already had the money in the hole. The replacement pole is larger, and obviously makes the passage too narrow for a person in a wheelchair, with a guide animal, or with a stroller.

While MCDOT is taking steps to fix the situation in front of my home, nothing is changing about how dozens of other poles throughout the neighborhood, county, and state are being replaced. I am happy that they are fixing the situation, but when I get to the end of the street there is another utility pole waiting for me, and another, and then another. MCDOT and MDSHA must approach this situation systematically – not in a patchwork fusion based on complaints from disabled people.

MCDOT said they were talking with MDSHA about this, but it has been 3 months and I have heard nothing. These poles are a serious impediment for people with disabilities. They come-up everywhere you go. They create narrow passages and other problems – sometimes depending on weather and time-of-day or night. MCDOT and MDSHA do not have plans to deal with these obstacles when the opportunity arises. By not having a plan, they are allowing crucial infrastructure to be installed incorrectly, which in turn pushes accessibility 30-years down the road for thousands of local residents like me and my family. In an urban, transit-oriented community like ours, that is just not acceptable. MCDOT and MDSHA must plan to remove barriers whenever they replace infrastructure, no matter how insignificant the single instance may be. A roadblock is a roadblock, no matter what form it takes.

These government agencies are discriminating against people who use sidewalks. People who use the ROW with a personal vehicle are treated in one manner, while those who walk and use transit are treated as inferiors. MCDOT and MDSHA spend a lot of money to maintain the roadway and almost nothing on the maintenance of sidewalks by comparison. Pedestrians in Maryland and Montgomery County are treated as second-class citizens.

In my opinion, both MCDOT and MDSHA are blatantly violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. I have notified them of this, and I believe that they do not intend to fully-address my complaint. I ask the Federal Highway Administration to investigate my claim and compel MCDOT and MDSHA to resolve this issue. MCDOT and MDSHA must understand the importance of planning to remove ROW obstacles for those who cannot drive. MCDOT and MDSHA must develop a self-evaluation and transition plan for the replacement of utility poles in the ROW. MCDOT and MDSHA must budget adequate funds to achieve this function. MCDOT and MDSHA must provide safe and convenient access to all users of the ROW regardless of their ability. Now, not 30 years from now. AS a blind person, I can’t wait that long.

In an effort to be brief I have not included all of the information I have pertaining to this matter. I have been keeping a blog about pedestrian access issues since October, 2009, and this topic is covered there more fully. I will provide additional information at your request.

William Smith

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