Workers install upgraded curb ramps on South Broad Street in 2018

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Philadelphia residents are used to bemoaning potholes on the city’s streets. So here’s potential cause for celebration: the Streets Department is adding a unit that should make paving happen more efficiently.

The new 13-person team will focus entirely on upgrading curb cuts and ramps to be ADA-compliant, which is essentially a prerequisite for resurfacing roadways.

The dedicated crew will also help the city speed up the process of making more sidewalks accessible, Streets officials said.

Up to now, the curb work has been done by contractors at a relatively high price. Under that system, the city’s cost of installing each ramp was $15k, according to a department spokesperson. With the new in-house unit, the department estimates an initial per-ramp cost of $12.3k, with the rate falling to $7.5k — half as much as before — as the team hits its stride.

Plans call for construction or restoration of 1,500 ADA ramps this year, so savings could add up to over $4 million in one year alone.

The new crew would be funded by an additional $1.5 million in Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget for next fiscal year. It will be key as the city waits for a settlement in a lawsuit over sidewalk accessibility.

Brought by a group of disabled residents in 2019, the suit is known as Liberty Resources vs. Philadelphia. It called out the danger of navigating Philly’s walkways, noting that many curbs “are broken, steep, crumbling, or have missing or inadequate detectable warnings.” An update in the case is due by the end of May, and it looms large over Streets’ plans. At this year’s budget hearings, officials noted a recent uptick in ADA ramp projects was “precipitated by litigation.”

Resurfacing and curb ramps are both funded via Streets’ Paving and Roadway Maintenance and Repair program. The two kinds of work often happen in conjunction for legal reasons.

Two years ago, in FY20, Streets had planned to resurface a total of 101 miles across the city, but only managed 64.

“During this period the city adopted its current approach of reviewing all curb ramps for repair or replacement along resurfacing routes,” a Streets spokesperson explained. “The review revealed more ramps that required repair or replacement than had been anticipated.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, made accessible design a federal standard. It was the culmination of decades of organizing by activists, including some unsung figures from Philly like disabled Black Panther Brad Lomax.

In 1993, on the basis of the act, Philadelphia was sued over inaccessible curbs. Called Kinney v. Yerusalim, the suit ended with the city being required to extend ADA-compliance beyond new construction projects to any road repaving.

Kinney was one of the first of a series of cases across the nation that tested the strength of the ADA. But in the three decades since, results in U.S. cities have been halting and incomplete.

Internal reviews in Baltimore reported in 2019 that only 1.3% of the city’s curb ramps were ADA compliant, and Boston reports that fewer than half of its curbs meet standards. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division acknowledges that “city governments often do not provide necessary curb ramps” for disabled residents.

In Philadelphia, a 2014 estimate stated that about 72,000 ramps needed to be upgraded — a number that would take more than a century to repair.

Last fiscal year, the Street Department received $100 million in capital funds to address the issue, with a target of repairing 6,955 ramps using that funding. The department did not answer Billy Penn’s question about how many have been completed since.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...