With Atlanta’s newly-minted Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a backdrop, attorneys representing a potential class of disabled city residents contended that the city’s infrastructure is so poorly maintained that it violates federal laws requiring accessibility to public venues.
Decatur attorney James Radford and Atlanta attorney Andrew Coffman of Parks, Chesin & Walbert announced Monday that they have sued the city in federal court in Atlanta for reneging on a 2009 settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that required millions of dollars of improvements to the city’s dilapidated sidewalks.
The new suit contends the alleged neglect of the sidewalk infrastructure is “a systemic, knowing failure by the city to maintain its public rights of way.”
As a result, Radford said disabled people like his clients find it difficult, if not impossible, to navigate many city streets.
Laurel Lawson is a software engineer and performance artist. She also is a paraplegic. James Curtis, a Shepherd Center volunteer, has a neurodevelopmental disorder. James Turner, who works for the nonprofit agency DisABILITY LINK, has cerebral palsy. All three depend on wheelchairs for mobility. And all have confronted broken pavement, missing pavement stone, curb ramps that are not flush with the street or have overly steep slopes which severely curtail their access to public sidewalks and streets, according to the suit.
On Monday, a city spokesman said the city “is committed to making its facilities, including streets and sidewalks, fully accessible and available for use by all its citizens and visitors.”
The emailed statement also asserted the city is not in violation of the 2009 agreement. “The City continues to address the identified needs and to cooperate with the DOJ by reporting its progress on an annual basis,” the statement said. “This activity remains a priority for the City, as it will continue to make these improvements in the most fiscally responsible and prudent manner possible.”
Radford’s is not the first lawsuit against a city over deteriorated sidewalk infrastructure. In 2015, the city of Los Angeles settled a similar lawsuit by agreeing to spend $1.3 billion over 30 years to upgrade sidewalk infrastructure and make it handicapped-accessible. Earlier this year, Portland, Oregon, settled a suit against the city by promising to spend $113 million over 12 years to make similar repairs.
On Monday, Radford pointed to what he called a dramatic disparity between what the city has been willing to spend to improve infrastructure around Mercedes-Benz Stadium—the new home of the Atlanta Falcons—and its inability to allot sufficient funds for repairing broken pavement on miles of sidewalk.
The city currently has under construction a $23 million, 700-foot spiraled pedestrian bridge with decorative translucent “snakeskin” to channel people from the Vine City MARTA station to the $1.5 billion stadium.
“The city is willing to spend millions of dollars on projects like the stadium and this enormous pedestrian walkway,” Radford said on behalf of three lead plaintiffs. “But what they budgeted for sidewalk repairs over the years has been meager.”
Radford said that, by choosing to build a pedestrian bridge to service the new football stadium, “You’re having your dessert before your dinner. You have all these fundamental things like sidewalks that people in wheelchairs can’t use. You are letting those languish. In the meantime, you are spending millions and millions of dollars on sports and entertainment. It’s just mismatched priorities.”
Radford said that, while litigating an earlier suit against the city on behalf of a disabled woman who had been unable to find an intersection where she could cross the street near the now-demolished Georgia Dome, he discovered the city had “an enormous backlog of broken sidewalks.” A 2010 city audit revealed that more than 15,000 intersections and about 18 percent of Atlanta’s sidewalk infrastructure were too dilapidated for people with disabilities to maneuver or had broken or inaccessible curb ramps.
The audit recommended at the time that the city budget $50 million to repair that existing backlog, Radford said, and then allot funds annually to repair and maintain the sidewalks and wheelchair ramps.
Instead, Radford said, the city did little. By 2016, less than 5 percent of the dilapidated sidewalks and curb ramps identified in the 2010 audit had been repaired, he said.
Radford said that, as part of the 2009 DOJ settlement agreement, the city also was supposed to establish a system that individuals with disabilities who encountered bad sidewalks could use to notify the city to have repairs made. “They just didn’t do it,” he said.
The suit seeks a court-ordered, permanent injunction that would require the city to inventory its sidewalks and intersections for compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. It also would require the city to allocate funds sufficient to repair the noncompliant infrastructure, budget future funds to maintain public rights of way so they remain accessible to disabled residents and visitors and meet the establish the notification the city promised but never created in the 2009 DOJ settlement.