As Kansas City tries to confront its giant backlog of roads, bridges and sidewalks, there’s another hugely expensive and equally important category of infrastructure that gets much less public attention and prominence.
Yet these low-profile improvements carry the teeth of a federal mandate. They have to be done. And the price tag is daunting.
“By the time we’re done, we’ll probably spend $100 million,” said City Manager Troy Schulte.
He’s talking about a federal consent decree that requires Kansas City to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We have an obligation to provide fully accessible facilities for all of our residents,” Schulte explained. “The key word is ‘all.’ ”
Since a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the city has already spent more than $27 million fixing everything from doorknobs and handrails to installing audible traffic signals for blind citizens and curb cuts for people in wheelchairs. It has addressed Bartle Hall’s entryway deficiencies, removed Municipal Court’s outdated escalators, and fixed problems at golf courses and community centers.
But bigger projects loom: more than $1 million worth of work needed at the Swope Park pool; $7 million at Starlight Theatre; $10 million or more at City Hall.
So Schulte hopes to include $35 million or more for ADA projects as part of a proposed $800 million general obligation bond package that the city plans to put before voters in April.
He says it’s necessary because the ADA improvements to date have been funded piecemeal, out of capital improvements sales tax dollars that are also desperately needed for streets, parks, flood control and other infrastructure.
“I’m just trading ADA compliance for street resurfacing or tree trimming or something like that,” Schulte said. “Because it’s a federal consent decree, it’s coming as a priority versus other needs.”
But will Kansas City residents agree in April that these projects are worth their vote?
Some people are raising concerns. City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, for one, questions whether Starlight Theatre truly needs $7 million worth of work.
She says she visited Starlight for an event while using a scooter for a foot injury and she was able to get to her seat, use the restroom and completely enjoy the experience.
Shields emphasized that she fully supports the city meeting its ADA obligations. But she’s not convinced that requires, for example, $7 million at Starlight.
“I’m saying I think we need more detail, and I think we need to make sure that the money we’re putting into something is in fact for ADA,” Shields said.
City Architect Eric Bosch insists the work is required to meet disability standards.
Polling from October suggests Kansas Citians could be supportive. About 66 percent of those polled said they would be more likely to vote for the bond package if it included renovations to public facilities like Starlight and city parks to make them accessible to the disabled.
For David Westbrook, who is blind and chairs the Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities, this program and expense will benefit more than just those who are visually impaired or who use a wheelchair. As the population ages, he said, more and more people cope with physical constraints.
“When you make your transportation or your city streets or your sidewalks or your city facilities more accessible to people with disabilities,” Westbrook said, “you make them also more accessible and convenient for consumers who don’t have a disability.”
Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. But Kansas City and many other cities were slow to comply. Complaints about Kansas City’s cavalier attitude toward the law reached a fever pitch in 2010 when a group of disabled citizens voiced outrage to then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser.
The Justice Department then inventoried city facilities and documented required improvements. The city settled with the department in July 2012, becoming the 200th city nationally to agree to improve access. But some City Council members warned in 2012 that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to bring buildings and streets into compliance, without a definite funding source.
The city’s full-time ADA compliance manager, Meg Conger, has worked with Bosch and Piper-Wind Architects Inc. documenting more than 44,000 deficiencies in more than 300 properties.
“It is civil rights law, and it’s the right thing to do,” Conger said.
The city doesn’t yet have a deadline to complete the work but needs to show progress, which Conger says it is. Bosch said it could be a decade before everything is fixed.
Conger said Justice Department representative Susan Quinn is working well with the city.
“She is very well aware of how diligent we are,” Conger said. “Not every city is. So I don’t see any reason why they would not keep working with us. They don’t want to bankrupt us, and they don’t want to put us in a position of hardship. They just want the work done.”
A Justice Department representative could not be reached for comment.
Westbrook said the bond proposal, which could pay for building and sidewalk improvements, would speed up progress.
“The bond proposal represents a great opportunity to take a big leap forward to not only be a livable city but an accessible city,” he said.
Among the most pressing projects:
▪ The Swope Park pool, near the Kansas City Zoo. Built in the 1930s, it lacks accessible restrooms, locker rooms or pool ramps. Updates will cost more than $1 million, with construction slated to begin soon.
▪ City Hall. Work is needed on bathrooms, some doorways and the elevators. Overall, it could cost $10 million or more to retrofit every floor, although Schulte said he hoped to concentrate on public spaces and reduce that cost.
▪ Starlight Theatre. The bowl seating area is too sloped, and portions must be redone to accommodate wheelchairs. The concessions, restrooms and parking areas also require work.
Shields and others say they need more information to justify the multimillion-dollar budgets.
Shields questioned ADA changes already made at Municipal Court, where escalators were removed and replaced by stairs. “You don’t replace escalators with stairs and claim you’re meeting ADA,” Shields said.
But Bosch insisted those changes were appropriate, as are the Starlight improvements.
“We’re not doing anything that’s not required,” he said.
Bosch said the Municipal Court escalators were outdated and didn’t meet ADA width requirements, and it was far less expensive to replace them with stairs. Meanwhile, updated elevators serve those with wheelchairs, he said.
Regarding Starlight, disability advocate Susie Haake, who uses a wheelchair, said the ADA changes are needed to provide equitable seating at different price points and accessible parking.
“I’ve passed up many a concert from my favorite celebrities because I knew it would be tough going,” she said.
Westbrook agrees the city’s ADA program is expensive, and the fixes can seem overwhelming. But he said his committee works with the city to ensure improvements are needed and cost-effective. He also said that, going forward, the city is ensuring no future violations occur as new facilities are built.
“We’re a buffer against radical ideas that are being advanced and that are sometimes excessive,” he said of his committee. “They are looking for ways to be creative and cost-efficient.”