Francis Falls, 51, has to choose between putting his life in danger to get around his neighborhood or staying inside his Central City home. A wheelchair user, Falls has to roll down the side of the street or in bike lanes, close to passing cars, because he can’t access the sidewalk.
That’s because the curbs along routes he normally takes to go to the store, visit friends or just get a breath of fresh air don’t have wheelchair-accessible ramps. The lack of curb ramps limits where he chooses to go in the city.
Falls has been in a wheelchair since 2004 and said sidewalks have been inaccessible throughout the city for at least as long as he’s been in a wheelchair.
In 2021, Falls and two other residents — Joe Henry of Hollygrove and Stephan Namisnak of Algiers Point — sued the city of New Orleans, claiming that its failure to ensure wheelchair accessibility violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. The following year, the city agreed to a settlement requiring it to install ramps on hundreds of curbs around their neighborhoods.
There’s no specific deadline for curb cuts to be installed in the three neighborhoods where the plaintiffs live, but city officials have said they anticipated that construction would be complete by October 2023 on all but five of the intersections they agreed to fix.
But according to the city’s own data, which was verified by Verite News, only about 48% of those intersections were compliant with federal standards as of last week.
Of the areas covered by the settlement, Falls’ neighborhood is the closest to compliance, Verite’s review found. Curb ramps were installed at most intersections along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near where Falls lives. But even there, a handful of intersections subject to the settlement still don’t have them, months after the city estimated that the work in Central City would be done.
“They ain’t finished,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because of the weather or what, but it should have been all the way done.”
Nakeila Polk with the city’s Department of Public Works said there are nuanced reasons for why the city hasn’t completed the work as anticipated.
Many of the intersections included in the settlement were part of existing projects the city had contracted out prior to the lawsuit and involve replacing more features than just the curb, like fixing asphalt on the surface or water and sewer lines under the surface of the street, Polk said in an interview Sunday (Nov. 19).
It’s more efficient for the city to fix the curb at the same time as the other issues, Polk added.
“So even though there is a timeframe to have to have certain intersections done, if that intersection is within a FEMA-funded project or a bond-funded project, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to go in and do work on an intersection that is gonna have to come out [to] replace a water line, sewer line or drain line,” she said.
Under the terms of some of those contracts, like the one that includes streets in Hollygrove, the city doesn’t have the ability to dictate how construction companies prioritize which streets they work on, Polk said. Newer contracts beginning in 2022 do give the city that power.
Weather, like rain or extreme heat, could have also delayed construction, she said. Polk directed questions directly related to the 2022 settlement to the city’s legal department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday evening.
The other neighborhoods fared worse. In Algiers Point, there were 20 intersections that were part of the settlement, 15 of which had anticipated completion dates of April 2023 or sooner. But less than half of those intersections have been completed.
And in Hollygrove, only one intersection out of the 12 that were listed by the city as non-compliant at the time of the settlement had been brought into compliance with the settlement. Verite’s review found that only two of the Hollygrove intersections had ramps at every corner. Most of them had other problems that violate the agreement: pavement broken up by tree roots or other vegetation and gaps between curbs and sidewalks that are large enough that makes it hard for wheelchairs to transition between the two.
When the settlement was signed, the city said it anticipated it would complete work on the Hollygrove intersections by June 2023.
“I think it’s terrible,” said Andrew Bizer, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the lawsuit against the city, after seeing the intersections in Hollygrove in early November.
“This is a consent judgment ratified by a federal district court about the enforcement of federal civil rights law that is over 30 years old, which impacts folks with mobility disabilities and their ability to travel about the city that they live in.”
Can’t move around the city
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted into law in 1990, requires ramps in any place where a sidewalk or other pedestrian walkway crosses a curb. The U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that oversees accessibility issues throughout the country, has design standards for the width, slope and height of ramps. It also requires that all new construction of public spaces be accessible, including much of the tremendous amount of roadwork the city is currently undertaking.
About 10% of New Orleans’ population has some kind of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, although it doesn’t have information on specific types of disabilities. Data from the Centers for Disease Control says that 16% of Louisiana’s population has mobility disabilities.
The city has had a plan for making all of its sidewalks, streets, neutral grounds and other pedestrian pathways accessible since 2013 — last updated in 2022. And there has been some progress in recent years.
Under the 2022 settlement, the city also agreed to complete accessibility it had begun but not completed in other parts of the city by January 1, 2023. And it agreed to track its progress bringing all of its intersections into compliance with federal law and maintain a regularly updated public database on that work.
According to the most recent update, from September 2023, the New Orleans Department of Public Works has increased the amount of compliant intersections by 13% since 2022. Still, according to the database, only about half of the city’s intersections are ADA compliant.
“The whole of New Orleans really needs to be reconstructed because there’s a lot of places I be wanting to go,”Falls said. “Everybody, not just me. A lot of people with disabilities can’t move around [the city].”
Treading dangerous streets
Change can’t come fast enough for residents who’ve been treading dangerous streets for decades.
Bizer said the city hasn’t contacted him or his clients about what’s delayed progress on the intersections.
“I want to know why they haven’t done it,” he said. “This is something they agreed to do by a certain date, and they did not do that.”
His next steps will be to draft a letter informing city officials that the work hasn’t been completed and asking them to either complete all work they agreed to within 90 days or explain the delays and provide updated timelines for completion. The settlement provides for deadline extensions should certain problems — such as extreme weather events, pandemics or labor or material shortages — lead to unavoidable delays.
Bizer said he’s previously sued cities over ADA violations and reached settlements or won at trial, only to have to drag them back into court over a failure to abide by the court orders.
In this case, if the court finds that the city violated the agreement, it could issue deadlines for completing the work. And if those are missed, the city could face contempt charges, potentially resulting in fines or even jail time for city officials.
“I’ve had this problem with other lawsuits against other municipalities about ADA compliance,” Bizer said. “You just gotta just stay on them, and hope that the judge that’s in charge is going to hold their feet to the fire and not just buy their excuses.”
Khalil Gillon, Michelle Liu and Charles Maldonado contributed to this report.
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