Bay Area Rapid Transit officials spent $2 million on a new ramp leading to the Lafayette station but didn’t include provisions for wheelchairs to get from the parking lot to the access ramp.
That’s not the only issue that might draw the ire of disabled-rights advocates. The south BART parking lot has 117 stalls for vehicles, but not a single space has been set aside for the disabled – putting the transit agency potentially at odds with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal guidelines generally call for one handicapped space for every 25 parking spots.
The new ramp allows wheelchairs and bicycles to bypass the 26 stairs leading from the south parking lot to the station entrance. The $2 million price tag covered the costs of the planning, design, landscaping, stairs and the marquee ramp that zigzags in four sections up the hillside to the station’s south entrance.
But the parking lot has no curb ramps or lips that would enable wheelchairs or bicycles to easily get from the parking surface to the sidewalk, where the ramp begins. BART officials say the ramp project was designed to connect the station to a bike path leading to the Lafayette City Center. Wheelchairs could access the ramp there, but the entry point to that path is down a hill close to busy Mt. Diablo Boulevard.
"This does preclude a disabled person from being dropped off in the smaller parking lot and using the ramp," BART spokesman James Allison said in a written e-mail response to questions. But he said disabled passengers could access the station from the north lot, which is closer to the station.
The new ramp, which was completed in April, was built with federal transportation dollars and local matching funds.
"In general, we're very serious about ADA requirements," Allison said.
Building the ramp without handicapped access prompted some head scratching among disabled-rights advocates and BART riders.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Fred Nisen, an attorney with Disability Rights California, a group that advocates for the handicapped.
The nearest sidewalk wheelchair access point is roughly 100 yards away at the parking lot entrance on Happy Valley Road. The station’s much larger upper parking lot on the north side of the station features handicapped parking and curb cutouts. The south lot is for permit holders who pay $84 a month or $4.50 a day.
Macey Little, 20, who works with the disabled, waited for a client at the base of the ramp last week. She furrowed her brow, contemplating the urban planning that went into the matter. Little rides BART from Concord to her job in Lafayette.
“That’s odd that they did that,” said Little, pointing to where she would have put curbside access if she were in charge of such things. “I’d think they would have put something here and maybe there. Otherwise, you’d have to push a wheelchair up the curb, and that’s a lot of work.”
Moments later, another BART passenger, Ken Roux, cautiously led his bicycle down the winding ramp to the sidewalk below.
"Looks like someone made a mistake," said Roux, 42, who lives in Lafayette. "It's a disappointment; if you have statutes on the books, you expect them to be enforced. It calls into question the integrity of the entire project."
Federal requirements call for specific ratios of handicapped parking spots – commonly one for every 25 stalls – as well as curbside access, according to Nisen. He said, however, that he would need to be more familiar with the station to know for sure whether BART was violating ADA requirements.
How the situation occurred speaks to the political dynamics and turf issues that can surface when more than one governmental agency has a stake in a public works project.
BART owns and operates the station along the Pittsburg-Bay Point line. The commuter service built and maintains the parking lot on the south side of the station. But the land under the south parking lot belongs to the East Bay Municipal Utility District. The water agency has been leasing the land to BART for 40 years – even before the system carried its first passenger. BART currently pays the utility district about $74,000 a year in rent, according to utility spokeswoman Andrea Pook.
BART's project manager, Jeff Garcia, who oversaw the ramp construction, acknowledged that the transit agency didn't want a confrontation with the water provider, so BART steered clear of changes to the parking lot. Garcia added that the water district had balked when BART had proposed other projects in the past. In fact, he said, BART dropped plans years ago to add curb access to the parking lot because of objections from the water agency.
So during internal BART planning discussions of the ramp project, Garcia said, "we were told we’re not allowed to touch the parking."
"They were definitely afraid of East Bay MUD," he added.
East Bay Municipal Utility District officials said the lease allows BART officials to make whatever enhancements are needed to the south lot. They can stripe it, paint it or modify it any way the transit agency sees fit.
“It’s our land; it’s their parking lot,” said Stephen Boeri, manager of real estate services for the utility district. Boeri said the utility district bears no responsibility for access issues.
“It seems like an oversight of their planning of the facility,” Boeri said.
But Garcia said the water provider's engineering staff might answer the question differently than would its real estate division.
"So if we do something, we have to talk to their engineering folks, who say you can't do anything," said Garcia, bemoaning the bureaucratic hoops one has to go through to plan a project. "People wonder why some things never get done."
The transit agency has won praise for its efforts to increase access to bicyclists and the disabled in recent years – but not without some missteps. In 1998, BART settled a class-action suit brought by Disability Rights California and Disability Rights Advocates over the issue of cleanliness and reliability of the system’s elevators.
Although the new ramp opened without fanfare, Allison said BART is planning an event in the community.
He added that there are no plans to change the configuration of the parking lot.
"That's not in the works," Allison said.
But Garcia said in a later interview that an inexpensive fix could be made to add access.
"I didn't give much consideration to that curb ramp," he said. "And now that I think about it, it's not a bad idea."
Mark Katches is the editorial director for the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch. More from California Watch here.