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California settles claims over sidewalk accessibility

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The California Department of Transportation has agreed to spend $1.1 billion over 30 years to make sidewalks, curbs and walkways more accessible to the disabled.

The agency announced last Tuesday it reached a settlement on two class-action lawsuits filed by Californians for Disability Rights, the California Council for the Blind and two people with disabilities.

The groups claimed that sidewalks and park-and-ride facilities maintained by CalTrans lacked ramps and proper signals to warn blind people where the sidewalk ends and the street begins. They also alleged that many sidewalks had uneven or broken pavement or were too narrow, forcing wheelchair users to travel in the streets alongside traffic.

Both sides agreed to a plan to fix and maintain 2,500 miles of sidewalks and lanes. The state also agreed to upgrade curb ramps when it resurfaces roadways.

"It would be inexcusable to continue to delay these modifications," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Instead of debating this through the legal process for the next decade, costing millions of taxpayer dollars, we are taking action to get this work completed."

CalTrans said it would spend $25 million a year in each of the first five years making upgrades. More would be spent each year after that.

Disability Rights Advocates, a Berkeley-based nonprofit law firm that represents people with disabilities, called the settlement unprecedented.

Ben Rockwell of Long Beach was one of two named plaintiffs who said they experienced dangerous conditions in their everyday travels. He regularly navigates California's busy Pacific Coast Highway.

"People like myself who are wheelchair users look forward to the day when we do not have to travel in the street with vehicular traffic because sidewalks are inaccessible," he said in a statement.

The AARP also joined the class-action suit "because with 77 million aging baby boomers in this country, we need to make sure our communities are places where everyone can live and get around," Julie Nepveu, an attorney for the litigation branch of the AARP Foundation, said in a statement.

The lawsuits were filed in 2006 and 2008 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and in Alameda County Superior Court.

The settlement was filed last Tuesday in federal court and is expected to be made final in April. As part of the deal, the state Department of Transportation will be required to file annual reports on its progress.

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