Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that state and local governments ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the pedestrian routes in the public right of way. An important part of this requirement is the obligation whenever streets, roadways, or highways are altered to provide curb ramps where street level pedestrian walkways cross curbs.2 This requirement is intended to ensure the accessibility and usability of the pedestrian walkway for persons with disabilities.
An alteration is a change that affects or could affect the usability of all or part of a building or facility.3 Alterations of streets, roads, or highways include activities such as reconstruction, rehabilitation, resurfacing, widening, and projects of similar scale and effect.4 Maintenance activities on streets, roads, or highways, such as filling potholes, are not alterations.
Without curb ramps, sidewalk travel in urban areas can be dangerous, difficult, or even impossible for people who use wheelchairs, scooters, and other mobility devices. Curb ramps allow people with mobility disabilities to gain access to the sidewalks and to pass through center islands in streets. Otherwise, these individuals are forced to travel in streets and roadways and are put in danger or are prevented from reaching their destination; some people with disabilities may simply choose not to take this risk and will not venture out of their homes or communities.
Because resurfacing of streets constitutes an alteration under the ADA, it triggers the obligation to provide curb ramps where pedestrian walkways intersect the resurfaced streets. See Kinney v. Yerusalim, 9 F 3d 1067 (3rd Cir. 1993). This obligation has been discussed in a variety of technical assistance materials published by the Department of Justice beginning in 1994.5 Over the past few years, state and local governments have sought further guidance on the scope of the alterations requirement with respect to the provision of curb ramps when streets, roads or highways are being resurfaced. These questions have arisen largely due to the development of a variety of road surface treatments other than traditional road resurfacing, which generally involved the addition of a new layer of asphalt. Public entities have asked the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice to clarify whether particular road surface treatments fall within the ADA definition of alterations, or whether they should be considered maintenance that would not trigger the obligation to provide curb ramps. This Joint Technical Assistance addresses some of those questions.
Where must curb ramps be provided?
Generally, curb ramps are needed wherever a sidewalk or other pedestrian walkway crosses a curb. Curb ramps must be located to ensure a person with a mobility disability can travel from a sidewalk on one side of the street, over or through any curbs or traffic islands, to the sidewalk on the other side of the street. However, the ADA does not require installation of ramps or curb ramps in the absence of a pedestrian walkway with a prepared surface for pedestrian use. Nor are curb ramps required in the absence of a curb, elevation, or other barrier between the street and the walkway.
When is resurfacing considered to be an alteration?
Resurfacing is an alteration that triggers the requirement to add curb ramps if it involves work on a street or roadway spanning from one intersection to another, and includes overlays of additional material to the road surface, with or without milling. Examples include, but are not limited to the following treatments or their equivalents: addition of a new layer of asphalt, reconstruction, concrete pavement rehabilitation and reconstruction, open-graded surface course, micro-surfacing and thin lift overlays, cape seals, and in-place asphalt recycling.
What kinds of treatments constitute maintenance rather than an alteration?
Treatments that serve solely to seal and protect the road surface, improve friction, and control splash and spray are considered to be maintenance because they do not significantly affect the public’s access to or usability of the road. Some examples of the types of treatments that would normally be considered maintenance are: painting or striping lanes, crack filling and sealing, surface sealing, chip seals, slurry seals, fog seals, scrub sealing, joint crack seals, joint repairs, dowel bar retrofit, spot high-friction treatments, diamond grinding, and pavement patching. In some cases, the combination of several maintenance treatments occurring at or near the same time may qualify as an alteration and would trigger the obligation to provide curb ramps.
What if a locality is not resurfacing an entire block, but is resurfacing a crosswalk by itself?
Crosswalks constitute distinct elements of the right-of-way intended to facilitate pedestrian traffic. Regardless of whether there is curb-to-curb resurfacing of the street or roadway in general, resurfacing of a crosswalk also requires the provision of curb ramps at that crosswalk.