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Locked out of Government

Statehouse restoration plans put accessibility at the bottom of fix list

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Bobby Ball speaks nonchalantly about the time she had to wait hours to use the bathroom. There she was, the executive director for the Idaho Task Force on the Americans with Disabilities Act, stuck on the fourth floor in the Idaho Statehouse during a legislative session. The building's east-end elevator-the only elevator Ball can situate her wheelchair in-was down again. That meant Ball, who cannot navigate through the Statehouse's upper floor bathroom, could not get to the first floor restroom-the only restroom in the building that she can use. So she decided to kill time by watching some floor debate from the gallery. Only, Ball couldn't watch the debate without blocking pathways because the gallery also isn't accessible.

Historic buildings don't have to meet the latest ADA accessibility requirements, but the government does have to make programs equally accessible to everyone, says Jim Baugh, executive director of Comprehensive Advocacy Incorporated. And some government programs require building access.

"What goes on in the Statehouse is government. And that should be readily accessible to everyone," Baugh says.

As construction crews toil at the top of the Statehouse dome as part of the Capitol restoration project, some wonder why inaccessible pathways and other barriers toward the bottom of the Statehouse remain untouched.

"Access is their last priority," Ball says.

The Statehouse restoration master plan does call for some changes to improve accessibility but some say the changes come a little too late and cross their fingers that the improvements will even happen.

"Plans have changed before," says Jan Frew, design and construction manager for the Division of Public Works.

The Legislature approved a bill last session that appropriates cash from cigarette taxes to the project. But in the history of Capitol restoration, such money has come and gone before.

A Capitol restoration master plan was drawn up seven years ago after consultation with disability-rights advocates and in 2001 the Legislature appropriated $32 million for the project with another $32 million slated to come from bonds. The economy took a turn south a year later and lawmakers reclaimed that money in 2002. The restoration was put on hold.

"If that happens again, they could change the law and take the cigarette tax back," Frew says.

If the economy stays afloat and the cigarette tax appropriation remains, the completed $70 million Statehouse restoration will sport an accessible elevator and pathways, larger restrooms, more Braille signage, hearing devices and other accessible features. Folks like Ball will just have to wait until 2009 to use the new and improved restrooms, and plenty of Statehouse visitors will have to deal with the Capitol as is.

"The building looks pretty good from the outside," Frew says. But look underground and beyond the historic stone exterior, she explains, and it's a different story.

Century-old water pipes, sewer lines, electrical wiring and mechanical parts that control heating and cooling are in a state of disrepair, Frew says. Plus, access obstacles abound on the inside.

"It barely complies with existing (ADA) codes," Frew says of the Capitol.

The east-end elevator, always seeming to break down or need a repair job during the legislative session, sits high on the list of accessibility barriers. And it happens to be the only elevator some folks can use if they want to access government in the Statehouse.

"If it's broke down, which seems to happen very frequently, you can't get around the building," says Kelly Buckland, who regularly visits the Statehouse as an advocate for Idahoans with disabilities.

Buckland's electric wheelchair cannot fit in the tiny west end elevator, which literally has lawmakers and lobbyists rubbing elbows on most days. It's standing room only in what Statehouse regulars often call the Senate-side or "Pepto pink" elevator, with an outdated pink interior reminiscent if 1950s-era decorating.

Still, the elevators-when they work-come in handy for folks who have trouble navigating the winding, narrow and sometimes slick marble steps that connect the Statehouse floors. But since neither elevator can fit a gurney for transport up and down the Statehouse floors, they're basically useless to anyone experiencing a medical emergency.

Buckland can understand a four-year wait for a new elevator and larger committee rooms, but she questions why restoration plans don't call for simple accessibility changes that can be done right away. Take the Statehouse doorknobs: Many are round and difficult to turn. Some new hardware, a screwdriver, a lever handle, and a few short hours of labor is all it would take to enable more people to enter Statehouse doorways.

"They don't have to wait until 2009 to do that," Buckland says.

Frew says some features of the Statehouse comply only with out-of-date, 10-year-old ADA codes and restoration plans aim to bring the building up to current ADA code as much as possible. But historic buildings are exempt from some requirements. Alterations are not required on features that have historic value and those round doorknobs: They are old and may just have some historic value and might not get a fix, Frew says. Larger bathroom stalls could also be a quick fix, but Frew says that would require the removal of some toilets, which would put the building in violation of health codes.

Still, Ball questions why accessibility changes are left for the end of the restoration project.

It simply makes sense to leave accessibility fixes last on the list because it's more efficient to start from the exterior, which often leaks water, and work toward the interior, Frew says. "We're trying to look at this from a practical standpoint."

Until 2009, the citizens of Idaho may also have to be practical, Baugh says.

"There are a lot of people who don't go to committee hearings because there are not enough seats."