By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY – It likely comes as no surprise to most Oklahomans that federal stimulus dollars are paying for the installation of new wheelchair ramps at intersections in and around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The surprise would be that many of these pristine ramps lead nowhere.

"A lot of questions and inquiries have been generated by the so-called ramps to nowhere," Oklahoma City's Director of Public Works, Dennis Clowers, disclosed to the Mayor and Council last week.

Oklahoma City was allocated $15 million in ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding through ACOG, the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, for use on road improvement projects. The city identified forty miles of arterial streets to be resurfaced.

"We weren't really even aware when we identified the streets that they were going to include the ramps," Clowers said.

Clowers and the city learned that anywhere they used stimulus money to make changes to a roadway, they would also have to ensure that crosswalks meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Officials with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation know all about ADA compliance. As the Oklahoma Impact Team learned this fall, ODOT has what it calls an 'enhancements' program under which they're using $26 million in Recovery Act funds, specifically, to install new ADA-compliant ramps and sidewalks in selected rural Oklahoma towns.

ODOT officials said they see this as a preemptive move, one that paves the way for them to use federal dollars, at some later date, to make improvements to the adjacent roadways.

"If you do an alteration, which is changing the elevation of the roadway by doing an overlay or otherwise altering the roadway, then you have to address the ADA issues. It's just part of federal law," said Gary Evans, ODOT's director of engineering.

So, because Oklahoma City is using stimulus dollars – federal money – to "alter" its roads, they were obligated to include new curb cuts with ramps in the resurfacing contracts, even in places where there are currently no sidewalks.

"In many cases, they may have sidewalk projects following in the future," Evans said. "A lot of these projects are on arterial streets, around businesses or adjacent to businesses, so there's the anticipation that there could be sidewalks in the future, or there is existing pedestrian traffic out there."

ODOT officials like Evans said they have tried hard to get the Federal Highway Administration to be more flexible in the imposition of this rule and with some success. At one intersection in Oklahoma City where the required ramp would have run straight into a steep mound of dirt, and where clearly there is no possibility for pedestrian traffic, the FHWA agreed to allow the old curb to stay.

Still, the law is intended to remove barriers to those with disabilities, and, in the long run, most believe that's important to do.

"I think removing the barriers is a good thing," Clowers said. "It may not look like a good thing right now if there's no place for [the ramp] to go, but ultimately, a few years down the line, maybe we can get those connected."

If and when cities like Oklahoma City decide to put in sidewalks to connect these new ramps, it's the cities that will have to pay for them.

In the meantime, ODOT will continue to help out smaller towns cover the cost of ADA-mandated access points through its enhancements program. The first three of those projects are scheduled for letting December 17 with another fourteen going to bid in January.