Give Detroit relief from sidewalks to nowhere

The Detroit News

Detroit spent millions of dollars this summer replacing ramps to make them wheelchair-accessible on sidewalks to nowhere — literally. The construction, which largely happened in areas with little or no foot traffic, is a waste of limited resources better spent on shoring up neighborhoods that are still viable.

The new ramps were built to satisfy requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that, among other things, dictates how cities make pedestrian areas accessible to disabled people.

Where there is foot traffic, these accessible ramps absolutely make sense. But in abandoned neighborhoods, Detroit should seek a waiver so that it could concentrate on rebuilding the infrastructure of more viable neighborhoods. The city should be allowed to concentrate on more populated areas, including intersections downtown that remain inaccessible for those in wheelchairs.

For Detroit, which has lost more than half its population over the past 20 years and now has 40 square miles of vacant land, new ramps along crumbling sidewalks that lead to weed fields or burned out homes are a testament to the poor decision making that contributed to the city’s decline.

The ramps don’t come cheap, and Detroiters are rightly angry by the poor priority setting. The ramps cost about $10,000 per intersection. The city has spent $30 million to install 25,000 ramps over eight years. In one half-mile stretch on the east side, from St. Jean to Cadillac, there are 52 new sets of ramps. And the work isn’t done. It will cost $60 million to build the additional 50,000 ramps to make the city ADA compliant.

Detroit promised the Department of Justice it would build all ramps by 2007, but made little progress on them by 2006. Now city officials are building the ramps under a court order that requires new ramps at every local intersection of major roads and on all roads the city resurfaces.

Even those around Detroit who use wheelchairs are frustrated with wasting money on ramps along lightly used sidewalks. The executive director of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, which sued Detroit to comply with federal laws, is now asking that the money be directed to busier areas.

A compromise on federal requirements was in the works but put on hold when Detroit declared bankruptcy. But the city kept building the ramps, a poor decision that suggests it still needs work on priority setting.

The city should halt work in abandoned neighborhoods while it pursues a compromise with the federal government that reflects Detroit’s unique circumstances.