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The guidelines within the Americans with Disability Act regarding pedestrian accessible sidewalk ramps are lengthy, complicated, and often confusing.
As an engineer for the City of Minot, Jesse Hoffart likes to simplify the process by asking himself one question: “The first thing I think about is this: If I were in a wheelchair, would I be able to navigate this intersection any way I want to?”
If the answer to that question is no, then Hoffart and the other members of the Engineering Department have work to do.
Accomplishing that work, however, can be challenging.
“The best possible ADA ramp is having two sidewalks come to a single shared space,” Hoffart said. “But every intersection is different, and there is always something to design around, like light poles, hydrants, or just how the sidewalks were originally installed.”
When those “best possible” scenarios don’t exist, that’s when it’s time to get creative while remaining ADA compliant. In every instance, there are countless guidelines to take into consideration.
“Turning space for someone in a wheelchair is one of the main parts of making a ramp ADA compliant,” Hoffart said. “You also have to consider the regulations regarding how steep the ramp going from the street to the turning space can be, and how long the ramp can be.”
Members of the Engineering Department have attended training in previous years that includes using a wheelchair to navigate model pedestrian ramps and other areas regularly encountered in a city. It’s an eye-opener for everyone, Hoffart said, because it gives staff members a glimpse of what someone in a wheelchair experiences. But it’s also valuable when they’re designing projects.
“That training made it real easy for me to push to make sure these ramps are fully compliant,” Hoffart said. “When you sit in a wheelchair and try to navigate a ramp that’s steeper than allowed by ADA guidelines, you realize how difficult it is. We want to change those to make everyone’s life better.”
The pedestrian ramps at the intersection of Broadway and 11th Avenue South near the Scandinavian Heritage Park were updated earlier this year. Hoffart estimated that he spent between 40 and 50 hours creating various designs to incorporate ADA compliant pedestrian ramps at that intersection.
“There are a lot of things to deal with at that location, like walls and parking lots, and there is a lot less space to work with than we’d like,” he said. “You want to make everything smooth and flat, but that’s challenging when the intersection is on a hill. I had to be creative. That intersection was pretty unique.”
Engineers start the design process by using GPS equipment to gather data points from the entire intersection, and then use a computer software program to create a 3D model using that data. Then the design work begins.
“I can change existing points to see how we can make everything compliant, but if you change one point because the ramp is too steep, that changes everything else in relation,” Hoffart said. “Everything has to work together.”
It’s rare, but sometimes engineers simply cannot meet every ADA guideline when designing accessibility aspects of an intersection. One aspect of the Broadway/11th Avenue intersection is technically still out of compliance.
“On the side where the gas station is, one of the ramps is between 17 and 18 feet long, but ADA guidelines limit it to 15 feet,” Hoffart said. “But sometimes after you’ve exhausted every possibility, you have to simply throw up your hands and admit that you’ve done everything possible to meet ADA requirements.”
In those cases, Hoffart said engineers submit a technical memo to explain why an ADA requirement can’t be met without enduring substantial cost or tearing up a large portion of roadway.
“A ‘good faith effort’ is written into the guidelines. We submit our reasons why something won’t work in a given location, even though we’ve tried every possible design to be in full compliance,” he said.
The pedestrian ramps that were updated in 2021 on Burdick Expressway were designed to be as compliant as possible by Apex Engineering. However, some were impossible to make fully compliant with ADA requirements, Hoffart said, mostly because of the lack of room along that roadway.
“We have to work with what’s there, and sometimes there is only so much we can do,” he said. “We’ve made some great improvements around Minot, but we have plenty of work to do yet.”
Hoffart explained that, in addition to ramps, there are other parts of an intersection that play important roles in helping residents with disabilities navigate around Minot, including:
For engineers like Hoffart, the details of the ADA guidelines are challenging, but the end result is well worth the effort.
“For someone in a wheelchair, even a 1-inch ridge can make things difficult, so the guidelines are very important,” he said. “I enjoy being part of a team that can help make life better for our residents.”