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County board approves handicapped-accessible plan

It will be easier for residents with physical challenges to get around Crow Wing County after the county board approved Tuesday a plan for making county highway projects more accessible.

Jenny Fields, a business analyst with the Crow Wing County Highway Department, and Assistant County Engineer Rob Hall talk about the department's Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan at the Crow Wing County Board meeting on Tuesday. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
Jenny Fields, a business analyst with the Crow Wing County Highway Department, and Assistant County Engineer Rob Hall talk about the department's Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan at the Crow Wing County Board meeting on Tuesday. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

It will be easier for residents with physical challenges to get around Crow Wing County after the county board approved Tuesday a plan for making county highway projects more accessible.

Assistant County Engineer Rob Hall credited Jenny Fields, an associate business analyst with the county highway department, for her "instrumental" work in performing research for the plan.

"It relates to a piece of Civil Rights legislation that's been around for almost 30 years," Hall told the board before it unanimously adopted the proposed Transition Plan.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, requires the department conduct a self-evaluation of existing facilities pertaining to public rights of way and ensuring they are accessible to all.

"I don't want it to look like we're just getting into following those rules right now; this is just formalizing the plan that's required through the legislation," Hall said. "Transition plans for road authorities basically relate to trails, sidewalks, curb openings, signals-that type of thing."

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The self-evaluation revealed the county has "full or shared responsibility for 286 curb ramps and 14 signal systems; the curb ramps were 38 percent compliant or substantially compliant, and the signal systems were 79 percent compliant or substantially compliant," according to officials.

The ADA was enacted in 1990, prohibiting discrimination and guaranteeing the disabled have the same opportunities as those without disabilities to participate in everyday American life-an "equal opportunity" law for the disabled.

The ADA consists of five titles outlining the following protections: employment, state and local government services, public accommodations and commercial facilities, telecommunications and miscellaneous provisions. The county falls under state and local government services.

The highway department's Transition Plan does not include information on programs, practices, other departments or building facilities not related to public rights of way.

"I researched many other counties' and cities' ADA plans ... and I also specifically researched service animals and interpreters for ASL (American Sign Language) and Braille ... to make sure that we really had a solid plan in place at Crow Wing County," Fields said.

The highway department conducted an inventory of pedestrian facilities within its public rights of way consisting of the evaluation of curb ramps and traffic control signals beginning in 2014, and the inventory has been updated since that time.

Agencies were contacted during the plan's development, and a public information meeting was Sept. 14, but no comments were received when the comment period ended Oct. 14.

"When I would ask people what are the blockades ... almost all of them came back related to buildings in town-very little comments on the roads, the sidewalks and the trails system," Hall said. "We didn't hear anything about the downtown campus or any other county buildings."

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To make all county facilities compliant would cost about $762,000, "a significant investment," so the department's Transition Plan states facilities will be upgraded on roadways identified for overall improvements, such as resurfacing or reconstruction.

County Highway 33 in Crosby and Ironton, for example, was reconstructed last year and involved switching 40 curb ramps from non-compliant to compliant, which will change the 38 percent figure for complying curb ramps to 52 percent.

Hall talked about improvements made to an intersection near Forestview Middle School and Knollwood Drive, such as upgrading the signal system with countdown indicators and audio.

"One day we were out there with about five engineers and technicians and surveyors and contractors, looking at how good or not good we did, and it just struck me as, 'What do we know-a bunch of able-bodied people looking at this-and how can we really react to it?'" Hall said.

"Through our reaching out to folks, we did identify one person who is very excited to help us out now and in the future ... been in a wheelchair for many years, so that person came out with me at the Knollwood intersection ... and they thought it was great."

All new facilities will be constructed to current ADA standards. Transportation projects identified in the County Highway Improvement Plan will be ADA compliant "to the extent feasible at the time the projects are delivered," according to highway department officials.

The 2017-21 highway improvement plan identifies 175 miles of roadway improvements, or more than 25 percent of the total mileage the highway department is responsible for.

"In the case of Knollwood intersection, there was one corner that would have taken an exorbitant amount of money to move the signal mast arm to gain 3 or 4 inches, just to make that corner compliant," Hall said. "If we are spending the money, are we spending it correctly?"

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The representative 2016 costs for some typical accessibility improvements, based on whether the improvements are included as part of a retrofit type project or as part of a larger comprehensive capital improvement project, can be substantial.

For example, an intersection corner ADA improvement retrofit may cost about $4,000 per corner, an accessible pedestrian signals upgrade retrofit may cost $25,000, and a sidewalk/trail ADA improvement retrofit may cost about $5 per square foot.

"For the last decade or more, whenever we've done a project in an urban setting, we've updated all the facilities to current ADA standards," Hall said.

"The standards change quite dynamically, so something we built 10 years might not technically be compliant today, but it's still working for folks, so we know that the next time we're at that road improvement, we will be adjusting those again."

Based upon current funding levels and assuming the average number of projects continue to be included in future versions of the highway improvement plan, 80 percent of accessibility features within the jurisdiction of the highway department would be ADA compliant "to the extent feasible" after 20 years.

"Last year, we did 13th Street from the fairground up to 210, and we cost-shared a lot with the city of Brainerd on the whole intersections as we went through them," Hall said.

"Our cost-share policy states the local agency and the county will share in the ADA improvement cost 50-50, because most of them go to a sidewalk system that is the city's."

Commissioner Paul Thiede made a motion for the board to adopt the Transition Plan and Commissioner Rosemary Franzen seconded the motion. The board unanimously voted to adopt the plan. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom was absent from Tuesday's meeting.

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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