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People with disabilities face mobility challenges in downtown Portland construction zones

A disability rights advocate says it’s more than a nuisance – it impedes people's freedom.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland's ever-changing skyline causes headaches for a lot of pedestrians.

It's hard enough to get through construction zones and detours across downtown.

But for people with disabilities it can really be a daunting task.

KGW Investigates' Morgan Romero hit the streets and tagged along as disability rights advocate Jan Campbell, who uses a wheelchair to try to get around, as she navigated construction zones in the city and encountered plenty of closed sidewalks near large construction sites. As we learned, that can prevent many people with disabilities from coming to downtown in the first place.

“I think the way the city is now – the downtown area – there's people that do not want to come to the downtown area that have disabilities,” Campbell said.

The all too familiar cacophony of construction can be a nuisance for Portlanders. You may groan at the growth or find the endless beeping and digging inconvenient and annoying. But for people like Campbell, it’s more than a nuisance – it impedes their freedom.

"It stops them from their freedom to be able to make choices because it's kind of saying you can't come down to the city because it's not accessible. So you don't have a choice in that,” Campbell said.

When construction blocks a sidewalk or path, federal standards require the construction company to create a safe, accessible alternate route that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Among ADA requirements, the alternative route has to have clear signage, barriers must be detectable for people who are blind or have low vision and there shouldn't be anything blocking the path or creating a hazard.

READ: Portland Bureau of Transportation Pedestrian Accessibility Around Work Zones

KGW Investigates found signs through alternate paths weren't always directing pedestrians well.

"I think it isn't really well marked,” Campbell said as she exited one construction zone near SW 10th Ave and Alder St in Portland, “Can you cross here? Because I do see some signage there but I don't know it's to go across this way."

Campbell says alternate routes aren't always accessible to people in wheelchairs or with mobility devices, and she frequently finds they are truly inaccessible to people who are blind or have low vision. She says the temporary paths are often too steep or uneven, or too narrow to pass. In some zones, she has to enter the street to reach the other side.

“When you're talking about across disabilities I don't think they're in compliant. For people using mobility devices, some are and some are not. But, you know, when you're doing construction it can make it very difficult to comply with ADA,” Campbell said. 

“Physical disabilities - people that use mobility devices - is usually top priority. But we look at other disabilities and places lag behind. And one of those is low vision and blind individuals because there’s just no signage, or how they can tell where to go from one end to another end? It’s just really difficult.”

KGW Investigates Morgan Romero walked from Goose Hollow to Pioneer Square, down to the Pearl District and up to Northwest with a GoPro and found similar issues scattered around Portland's many new construction sites. 

MORE: American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Pedestrians Checklist and Considerations for Temporary Traffic Control Zones

Of course, there weren’t issues with every zone; a number of them had accessible routes with even surfaces, solid barricades and advanced signage.

But in other instances, we found "sidewalk closed" signs blocking curb ramps people need to use to reach the open sidewalk across the street. In one instance in the Pearl District, we found caution tape used as a lengthy barricade, which is not acceptable or appropriate under the ADA.

"It could be illegal if accessible is not actually accessible. If it's too narrow, too steep, if there are obstructions. And so one thing I see often here in Portland are the grates themselves,” Disability Rights Oregon Legal Director Emily Cooper told KGW. "What I think construction companies and the city should be mindful of is they’re liable under federal law. If they do not have an accessible route pursuant to well-established law and someone gets hurt they can sue the city or construction company.”

Similar to Campbell, Cooper has seen several places in the city where signage for the alternative route is inadequate and where the alternative route itself isn’t accessible.

Cooper feels experienced companies familiar with the ADA do a pretty good job, but others who might be newer to the city aren't as well-educated.

"They're trying but not succeeding in all areas,” cooper added. “i don’ think this is because they’re bad construction companies. I think it’s they’re uneducated.”

While she commends the city for being responsive, Cooper and DRO wish the Bureau of Transportation would plan better in coordinating with all the different construction companies. 

"I think the frustration I have is being responsive when there’s an unsafe sidewalk is one thing, but what about planning so we never get there? What I’d really like the city to do is plan better. So when they look at construction areas throughout the city they think, how is someone with a disability really going to get through here and how can we preemptively plan so we can maintain our obligations under the law?”

Until every area is accessible, Campbell says some people with disabilities won't step foot in or visit downtown, particularly those who are low vision or blind.

KGW Investigates reached out to the Portland Bureau of Transportation for their response to a number of questions. Answers to some of are questions are italicized below:

  1. If a company is not in compliance with ADA, how does the city enforce this?

    We encourage the public to contact us with concerns about work in the right of way using the “work zone concerns” section of the PDX reporter mobile website, PDXReporter.org. Our traffic engineers will visit the site and require modifications if the temporary sidewalk doesn’t work as expeted[sic]. If the contractor did not buld[sic] the temporary access that we required in their permit, we can require corrections, or fine them if it’s egregious. Fines start at $300 per occurrence[sic]. If it’s an imminent safety issue, we could issue fines every 15 minutes.

  2. What is the city’s role in ensuring accessibility in alternative routes during construction?

    We advocate for the most accessible sidewalks possible during construction. First, we advocate for no blocking of a sidewalk if it can be avoided. If that’s not possible, we require contractors to create a temporary sidewalk in the parking lane next to the sidewalk. If a travel lane can be used, we’ll ask them to use a travel lane for a temporary sidewalk. Forcing people to go across the street or around the block would be the last resort. All the temporary sidewalks we require must be as good or better than the existing, permanent sidewalk that is being blocked.
  3. Are there areas the city feels they can improve in?

    we’d like to be more responsive to the public. With the volume of construction activity in portland right now, it sometimes takes a few days for us to respond to reports of violations, but we do try to address the most urgent complaints that come in first.  We told dro officials yesterday that if we receive an ada related complaint, we would move that up to the top of the list. If we had more staff, we could investigate work zones without having to be prompted by complaints from the public.

  4. Disability Rights Oregon feels the city is typically responsive when an issue with a sidewalk or route is raised, but wishes the city would plan better in advance. They especially point to areas where there are multiple different projects going on. How can the city better plan in advance and incorporate the voices of the disability community when creating accessible routes?

    We strive to make sure we never have two sidewalks on the same street segment closed at the same time. For example, if the south sidewalk on SW Main Street is closed between Second and Third avenues, we won’t allow someone else to close the north sidewalk on main street between second and third avenues.

    When the economy is strong, as it is now in Portland, we know there are times when a lot of construction may be happening in one area. This can result in a lot of sidewalk closures in one area. So you may have cases when you have the east sidewalk closed on one side of a street and then the west sidewalk closed on the next segment of the same street. We do try to avoid that.

    We can’t just tell people they can’t develop their property. If they can start construction without disrupting the sidewalk, that is always our first choice. We don’t control the pace of development, and the city generally wants to be known as a good place for businesses to grow and create jobs and housing.  

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