RED LODGE—Main street merchants in this mountain town, already steamed over a seemingly endless state construction project in the heart of downtown, got more bad news Thursday meeting.
At a community meeting called by Mayor Ed Williams, they were told that the Montana Department of Transportation, responding to complaints over how sidewalks were rebuilt, would like all “obstructions” removed from downtown sidewalks.
Those obstructions would include benches, garbage cans, planters and the sidewalk sandwich boards that so many businesses use to advertise their wares.
Williams bluntly delivered his opinion on why the state is making that suggestion. He said MDT is “trying to transfer liability” from the state to the city and private businesses in the event that anyone seriously injured at one of the sidewalk intersections decides to sue.
The problem, he said, is not sign boards and benches; the problem is poorly designed sidewalk features that supposedly are there to help people with disabilities.
“Before these corners were constructed, we had very few trips and falls compared to what we have now,” Williams said. “That’s just a fact. Now, it’s almost daily.”
The sidewalks were rebuilt as part of a $6.7 million MDT project to resurface Broadway Avenue, the main drag in Red Lodge. The state undertook the project because Broadway is a state-owned and –maintained road.
The project was supposed to have been completed in one season, finished by October 2014, but it wasn’t, then dragged on through this summer, and it is not quite finished yet. Business owners complained that the construction mess, paired with periods of limited access, drastically affected their bottom lines.
Then came the new sidewalk intersections, constructed to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. City officials and residents complain that the corners are dangerously built, with triangular “return islands” separating sloped walkways and “return curbs” that feature steep drop-offs several inches high.
Williams said he was told the raised features are there for people with impaired vision, so they can tell by tapping their canes where they are on the sidewalk.
The subject has inflamed passions, sparking long, spirited exchanges on two Facebook pages, Red Lodge Debate and Red Lodge Neighborhood Alert. (Red Lodge Debate is a closed group, meaning you have to join before chiming in.)
The vast majority of comments have been critical of the state, and one widely circulated photograph showed two bloody knees, supposedly the result of tripping on one of the ADA features.
About 40 people attended the meeting Thursday morning at the Elks Lodge. Most of them own businesses on Broadway, but one man identified himself on the sign-up sheet as a “disgruntled taxpayer.”
Williams said the city formally told the MDT of its concerns with “defects and deficiencies” in the sidewalks last April. In response, Stefan Streeter, Billings district administrator for the MDT, recently “made it abundantly clear” that the state would like to have all obstructions removed from downtown sidewalks, Williams said.
That doesn’t necessarily have to happen, Williams said, because the city has an agreement with the state that says the city will be responsible for maintaining sidewalks along Broadway.
Despite calls for the city to have the ADA features removed, or at least painted to make them obvious to pedestrians, Williams said the city attorney told him that if the city does anything to them, it will share liability with the state.
“We’re going to have to live with these walks for a while, folks,” he said.
Even so, people attending the meeting vented considerable frustration with the rebuilt sidewalks. Tom Kuntz, the local fire chief and owner of the Red Lodge Pizza Company, said the state’s defense of the sidewalks is that they are “ADA compliant.”
He said they are compliant but not required, a point raised by others as well. They said all sorts of designs used in other cities are ADA compliant and pose no hazards to pedestrians.
Before the new sidewalks went in, Kuntz said, the city would sometimes receive complaints about sidewalks if roots or frost heaves raised sidewalk panels by as little as half an inch. Now, he said, the state has designed panels with trip hazards 4 inches high.
Another attendee suggested the city put up signs at the entrances to town, warning people that some walkways—and before he could finish, Williams said, “may be hazardous to your health.”
Touching on the liability issue again, Williams said the city has “some protection” because it made its concerns with the sidewalks known to both the MDT and the city’s insurer, the Montana Municipal Insurance Authority.
The mayor also told people that the City Council hopes to draft a resolution soon outlining the city’s new policies on sidewalks. He ran through several options Thursday, including the placement of business signs or garbage cans on some of the “return curbs,” to steer people away from the steep drop-offs.
City Council President Mike Schoenike said the state blamed some of the troublesome ADA features on pre-existing problems, including the placement of city light poles and drain grates. But even if that were true, he said, the state should have worked with the city on those problems rather than simply installing features that surprised everyone.
And as some people said at the meeting, all the hazards posed by the new features will only be worse this winter, when it begins to snow in this very snowy town.
Streeter, the district MDT administrator, said he was at a conference in Portland on Thursday and had no time to talk. He referred calls to Matt Maze, the department’s ADA compliance officer in Helena.
Maze was reluctant to say anything, except that “we met our requirements” and that the ADA requires all “street furniture” to be usable by and pose no hazards to people with disabilities.
“We need to protect the rights of those who are disabled,” he said. “That’s our obligation.”
Maze said he would ask someone from the department’s public affairs division to call Last Best News. If that happens, we will add to this story.
Meanwhile, Mayor Williams has scheduled another community meeting for this evening at 5:30, also at the Elks Lodge, 114 Broadway Ave.