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City Embarks on Journey to Improve Accessibility

A public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday is part of an overall process to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards in Somerville.

Publication: By Chris Orchard / Somerville Patch

The city of Somerville is undertaking an effort to improve access to buildings, streets, sidewalks and ramps for people with disabilities.

It's an effort that could take years, and millions of dollars, to complete, but it begins, in part, with a public meeting Wednesday where residents can discuss their priorities, concerns and ideas about accessibility in Somerville.

The meeting will also be an opportunity to discuss a recentAmericans with Disabilities Act—ADA—self-evaluation, a study commissioned by the city, that concluded Somerville has some "daunting" accessibility challenges to overcome.

The challenges include dealing with old buildings that aren't accessible for people with disabilities. Some of those buildings, such as the Brown School, even serve as voting precincts during elections, making it difficult for people with disabilities to vote.

Speaking about the effort on Tuesday, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said the city is working on a plan to identify where accessibility problems exist and secure funding for fixing those problems.

"We want to hit the next construction season with speed" with a list of ADA projects to accomplish, he said.

"We don't have the capacity as a city to fix everything all at once right now," he said. However, "We understand our obligations and recognize we have a plan to meet them."

Curtatone said his administration was planning to set aside about $1 million in next year's budget for ADA compliance and accessibility projects. Future budgets could see the same. "We're going to put real money behind it," he said.

Part of the city's efforts have included hiring Betsy Allen as Somerville's first full-time disabilities coordinator in over a decade.

If the city were to fix all ADA compliance issues on its buildings right now, the price tag would be around $6 million, she said. However, she emphasized that, in the real world, it's difficult to determine the the cost of such things. If Somerville were to build a new city hall, for instance, it would be built to ADA standards. If the city stopped using an old building, it wouldn't have to make upgrades.

Part of the effort to make the city more accessible, therefore, is to determine the futures of buildings and facilities. Will the city build a new high school? A new library? What happens with the Cummings School building now that the new East Somerville Community School is complete? Does it make sense to invest in an old building that may be put to other use?

There are a lot of moving pieces.

"We have a fiduciary responsibility to tax payers to spend money wisely," Allen said.

Likewise, Rob King, the city engineer, said said the city has 3,100 ramps, and it would cost around $8 million to make them all compliant. It would cost $75 million to make all the city's sidewalks compliant. But lots of those projects get taken care of during a major road reconstruction, like what's happening on East Broadway and what's planned for Beacon Street.

A major part of the city's planning will depend on community input. That's why interested residents should attend Wednesday's meeting. It's at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Another meeting is scheduled for Sept. 25.

Allen pointed out that disabled people are "the only minority group that anyone can join at any time," and fixing the city's accessibility challenges will benefit everyone.