Commissioners to hear plan to fix Augusta bus shelters, making them accessible

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News 12 NBC 26 at 6

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Fixes could be on the way Augusta bus stops that are not accessible to people with disabilities.

Commissioners on the Public Service committee were supposed to be presented with a plan to refurbish bus shelters in several locations across Richmond County, but because several commissioners were absent to attend a TIA meeting, the presentation was postponed to Tuesday, February 19.

Edward Bellamy is one of the people who stand to benefit from the improvements.

We found Bellamy walking to the VA using a white cane to pick up his prescription. He was diagnosed with a disease he says will eventually make him completely blind, but right now he has about 3% of his sight.

He's learned to listen and feel for where the sidewalks are in Augusta. Often he finds abrupt cut-offs where there is no sidewalk, no ramp to get off and on safely or no ramp to get onto a bus stop.

We watched as he felt his way over tree roots growing over the sidewalk and creating a large ditch where the sidewalk should continue.

"Especially around the VA. There are homes for veterans around this area and it's still not adequate to get around," said Bellamy.

Edward isn't the first person we've shown you who has a hard time navigating Augusta sidewalks, streets and bus stops.

"Do I think the city could do more. Yes, mam, I do," said Bellamy.

Commissioner Mary Davis, who is also the chairman of the Public Service Committee, says an assessment of bus shelters is long overdue.

"I see the difficulty with people trying to get to the bus shelter. I also see a lot of bus stops without shelters," said Bellamy. "It's important to us and we are going to address it."

The Augusta-Richmond County Spokesman Jim Beasley told us commissioners are looking to ADA compliant bus shelters along North Leg, in front of the municipal building and in front of Christenberry Fieldhouse.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

AUGUSTA Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- The Augusta Commission has agreed to work with the Georiga DOT to improve sidewalks near Kissingbower Road and Walton Way.

This agreement comes after an I-Team Investigation that looked at sidewalk concerns on Wrightsboro Road for people in wheelchairs.

News 12 will continue to follow this story and bring you the latest.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
(News 12 at 6 O'Clock / NBC 26 at 7)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Risk is not an unfamiliar concept to Douglas Holland.

"I have had my neck broken twice. I was a paratrooper," said Holland.

He's a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles.

He's fighting a different battle now with getting around Augusta's medical district in his wheelchair.

"I am going to have to take the street," said Holland.

He says he feels forced to skip the sidewalks and ride his wheelchair in the street because of missing curb cuts, ramps and the lack of crosswalks. Along one sidewalk on his route toward the downtown VA medical center a grass square replaces a piece of sidewalk.

"Well If I came down here and hit that grass strip I would be stuck. The chair would just sink," said Holland.

Holland showed us a place in the curb where he can't get off just a few feet away from a bus stop. He was forced to turn back around and find a different way.

"Ok now, we had a ramp getting up on this sidewalk, but there is no ramp getting back off or getting on the sidewalk and the bus stop sits right there. We don't have access to the bus stops," said Holland.

Holland says he's always nervous about the conditions of the sidewalk on the destination end of his bus stop too.

"The bus stop will put the ramp down, we will get off the bus and then we can't get off the sidewalk," said Holland.

We found the city put out a bid in September of 2017 to fix more than 200 bus shelters around the city. The city ended up canceling the bid, because they didn't have any compliant bidders for the project. The project was never completed.

Since our investigations, the city is reviving the project, partly.

The city says they plan to use $46,000 in Federal Transit Grants to refurbish the bus shelter we showed you in our first investigation in front of Christenberry Fieldhouse, the one in front of the municipal building and to put new shelters along North Leg Road.

"It's such a nightmare for people in chairs to get around. It's not even funny," said Holland.

For right now, the fixes don't include the streets around Douglas Holland's home in the medical district.

"We just call them sidewalks to nowhere because that's where it leads us," said Holland.

His sidewalk to nowhere is nowhere near where it needs to be.

The city's Self-Evaluation and Transition plan estimates it would cost more than $150,000 to fix issues along the portion of Walton Way near the medical district.

The plan shows the stretch of Walton Way from 13th to 15th is missing three ramps and illustrates a stretch of sidewalk that needs to be added.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018
(News 12 at 6 O'Clock / NBC 26 at 7)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) --DeWayne Murray has lived in Augusta for most of his life.

He's spent the last nine years walking in different shoes.

"I had an aneurysm," said Murray.

Murray lost feeling on the left side, has no use of his left arm and even after physical therapy, he says he still doesn't walk quite the same.

"It's being kind of hard, being disabled versus before," said Murray.

Things like walking to the grocery store on Wrightsboro Rd. aren't so easy.

"They don't have a bunch of sidewalks for us to get around on not Wrightsboro road anyway and they should," said Murray.

In 2014, Augusta-Richmond County hired Cranston Engineering to create a Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan.

The firm surveyed and evaluated bad sidewalks, ramps and other infrastructure making it hard for folks, like DeWayne, to get around Augusta-Richmond County.

Cranston Engineering completed that plan in 2016.

Augusta Commission voted to adopt the plan two years later in February 2018.

The plan includes a list ranking the places prioritizing areas that need to get fixed first.

Cranston came up with the priority list using data collected over a year.

The engineering firm calculated a barrier ranking score based off the level of activity around the area and the condition of the paths, ramps, islands and other features of the right-of-way.

Cranston Engineering concluded that Greene St from 13th St. to East Boundary is the first priority, followed by Richmond Ave from Winter to Hickman, Bransford and Boy Scout Rd, Ellis St from 5th to East Boundary and priority number five is 4th St. at Walton Way near the Sheriffs Office and 4th at Watkins St.

These are the top five areas, out of 95, that need a fix in Richmond County according to the plan.

We uncovered only one out of five are funded right now.

Traffic Engineering Assistant Director, John Ussery, says the sidewalk improvements along Greene Street already started with GDOT's signal upgrade project.

Ussery says the rest of Greene St will be taken care of as a part of the TIA project in a few years.

Ussery says they will request money to fix the areas that make up the top 5 priorities if the TIA program is extended or in the next SPLOST cycle.

Ussery has told News 12 in a previous interview, the county isn't tied to the priority list and can work on the projects in whatever order they believe is best.

The portion of Wrightsboro Rd at the center of our investigation is ranked at number 56 on the priority list for the county.

We showed you the risky trek one student was making on the shoulder of the road along Wrightsboro Rd. near Christenberry Fieldhouse to get home.

Along Wrightsboro Rd. you'll find sidewalk on only one side of the road and bus stops without curb cuts and without sidewalks leading to it.

The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center is also located along Wrightsboro Rd.

DeWayne is wondering as far down as his block is on the list when the work here will get done.

"I have to go another way and it's farther than they usually go," said Murray.

You can click here to read Augusta-Richmond County's Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan.

Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018
News 12 @ 6 o'clock / NBC 26 at 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- We first introduced you to Augusta University graduate student Ashley Jackson on the side of Wrightsboro

I-team reporter Kelly Wiley and Jackson walked the route she used to take once a week on the shoulder of Wrightsboro Rd near Christenberry Fieldhouse to get to her apartment.

After we showed you the video Augusta University made sure a shuttle picks her up and drops her off in front of her apartment.

"I appreciate that they did that because as far as I am concerned it wasn't for the school to fix it. It was more of a city accessibility issue in my mind," Jackson said.

The Richmond County's Board of Elections vowed to make better access to a polling site here a top priority.

County engineers know it's a problem, but say so is the money to fix it.

Assistant Engineering Director John Ussery says there's no fix on the books for the bigger problem - The lack of sidewalk on one side of Wrightsboro Road.

“Is it even in the cards for there to be a sidewalk added to Wrightsboro Road,” Kelly Wiley asks.

"Currently there is no project that has been programmed to put a sidewalk on the side of Wrightsboro Rd. Doesn't mean we are not aware of it, but it is not a part of the TIA of any other project we have," Ussery explains.

Ussery says it will be at most three years before construction starts on the TIA projects he mentions. Broad St., another area with cracked sidewalks, is set to be rehabilitated towards the end of the TIA process.

"We will do what we can to make small improvements until we get to the point where we can program a large project," he said.

But Ussery says the $1 million in SPLOST 7 funds the county has been using to fix the "smaller" issues this year has run out.

"I think the commission is aware of the issue and I do applaud them for starting the process and giving us money so we can start to make improvements. We probably will ask for more funding above what we got last time.”

Ussery adds "That will be up to them [commission] to decide what their priorities are."

After 9 years of calling a-day-ahead for a ride and traveling risky routes, Ashley says she's stopped looking for changes.

"You get to the point where you get so frustrated that you don't look for it anymore,” she said.

Richmond County received grants that will pay to fix ADA issues along a portion of Walton Way and Kissingbower Road.

Ussery also tells me the engineering department is working with the transportation department to re-do signs, add curb-cuts and relocate some bus stop shelters that are inaccessible.

Ussery says they are able to do so because transportation has a different fund to pull from and says they are already meeting with transportation regarding this project.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- After an I-team investigation into polling place access, county leaders hosted a roundtable discussion on difficulties getting to the polls for people with disabilities.

The roundtable discussion held in the Beazley Room of the Municipal building featured a panel of county department heads, the Richmond County Board of Elections and disability advocates.

Advocates included the National Secretary for the Paralyzed Veterans of America Mr. Larry Dodson, Community Advocate Tim Hollobaugh, and Independent Living Advocate Gaylon Tootle.

News 12 NBC 26 told Richmond County about trouble people with disabilities were having to get to the polling location at Christenberry Fieldhouse on Election Day, but Tuesday night Board of Elections Director said the board received specific complaints about the polling sites at Christenberry Fieldhouse, the Aquatics Center, Crawford Avenue Church, and the Wallace Branch Library.

In response to a question by panelist, Gaylon Tootle, asking whether Christenberry Fieldhouse would continue to be a polling site BOE Director Lynn Bailey said "As the chairman mentioned we are eager to make suggestions or recommendations to the engineering department for prioritization of repairs. You can take as a guarantee that that particular facility will be at the very top of those recommendations. We have heard from the community that there is an issue there. Whether or not we vacate that facility, we don't know yet. We will get through this November election and in 2019 we will have plenty of opportunities to take a deep dive and look into those and relocate voters if we need to."

Special Services Manager for Augusta Public Transit, Denise Mulkey, also gave an update on the transit services available to people with disabilities on election day.

Mulkey and ADA officer Carole Burrowbridge told the crowd Tuesday that all polling places are served by either ADA Paratransit or Special Transit Services and are eligible for ADA Special Voter Transit Service.

Mulkey said feeder services from bus stops to polling places are also available for voters who can't make it from their public bus stop to the polling place.

Mulkey says he will waive the fee for the feeder service if voters with disabilities are taking paratransit from the bus stop drop-off to their voting locations.

Georgia State Rep. Wayne Howard was also at Tuesday's panel and says he plans to look further into accessibility along state routes.

Friday, July 20, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- There's an update to our investigation into risky routes people with disabilities are taking to get around town and to the voting booth.

Beginning November 6th, Richmond County Board of Elections Director Lynn Bailey says the County plans to offer special ADA Voter Transit services on Election Day.

The county plans to shorten the wait time to get Paratransit eligibility from 3-4 weeks to a few days.

Director Lynn Bailey says on election day Paratransit will allow people who haven't applied for Paratransit to offer their handicap sticker for eligibility instead of a doctors note.

The fee to ride Paratransit is higher than the bus fare for Augusta Transit, but starting November 6th discounts will be available for voters riding to the polling places on Election Day.

Voters using Paratransit will still have to call 24-hours ahead of time to schedule a ride to polling places.

Board of Elections Director Bailey says voters with disabilities who need transit from the bus stop to their polling site, such as AU Christenberry Fieldhouse, may make arrangements by contacting Shantel Cooper with the Transit Department at 706-849-3458.

The transit department is also reaching out to all citizens who are qualified for paratransit service to tell them that transportation to their polling place is available on Election Day, according to Bailey.

To learn more about the ADA Paratransit Service or to register, CLICK HERE

Monday, July 9, 2018
(News 12 at 6 O’Clock)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – Our News 12 I-Team showed risky routes people with disabilities are taking to get around the county, and to polling locations.

Since that investigation, Augusta University has offered the woman in our story, grad student Ashley Jackson, some help. Monday night the city will give another update on accessibility at the Municipal Building.

The city tells News 12 that, at the very least, their polling places meet minimum accessibility requirements. But they also say they are working with the compliance department to enhance the experience for voters with disabilities.

They’re working on things like beefing up signage or putting more wireless buzzers for doors. But most of the concerns we heard at the last Board of Elections meeting from disabled voters was that they have a hard time navigating and accessing sidewalks to get to the door of their polling place.

We spoke to Elections Director about the accessibility concerns.

“As far as we knew, there were no problems with polling places. We had no issues during the May elections nor any elections prior to that at any of our polling locations. So we’re eager to find fixes where we can and we’ll see where the discussion leads us down the road,” said Lynn Bailey.

Bailey also told News 12 that a few weeks back they were planning a community discussion, but they haven’t set a date.

Thursday, June 21, 2018
(News 12 at 6 O’Clock)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – Ashley Jackson is a full-time student, just months away from graduating Augusta University with a Master's Degree. Her Facebook account shows off her triumphs, with photos of graduations and posts about completed papers, but it also shows the struggles she faces.

Some are struggles most students face and there are some that most don't.

“There’s always been some sort of challenge somewhere," said Ashley.

Ashley told News 12 Augusta may be the worst place she’s been to when it comes to accessibility.

She takes a risky route from her shuttle stop at Christenberry Fieldhouse to her apartment complex, moving her wheelchair alongside busy traffic. A special curb-to-curb service called Paratransit, offered by Richmond County, she uses doesn’t run past 7 at night, so she makes the trek twice a week after her night class.

 View Full Video Here: Kelly Walks Risky Routes

We asked if drivers ever stopped to help her.

“When it’s raining people stop,” Ashley said while walking alongside News 12’s Kelly Wiley on her weekly route.

Ashley says people rarely stop to ask if she needs help. She says she was once stopped by a cop.

“I told him I was going home, and he said ‘okay,’” said Ashley.

There is only one sidewalk on Ashley’s route, but it’s across the street from her apartment complex.

“I can’t get over there. That’s what I was talking about. There are some that I just can’t get to,” said Ashley.

We started asking the city questions about accessibility at the intersection at Wrightsboro Rd. and Valley Park last month after the May elections. Christenberry Fieldhouse sits at the intersection and has been used as a polling location since 1998.

The day after the May elections an advocate for disabled people and veterans, Tim Holobaugh, contacted News 12 about this very spot, where some of you, your family, and friends disabilities exercise their most basic right to vote.

According to the law, polling places must have "an accessible route [...] to the entrance of the voting facility."

Carol Burrowbridge works for Augusta-Richmond County as the ADA officer. That job is to enforce and audit for ADA compliance (see ADA Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan, page 7).

We asked her if the polling place was compliant with ADA law.

Burrowbridge told us, “even if that were a public street, the shoulder off the road is the accessible-path.”

We also asked if any work would be done at the intersection or along the path to Christenberry Fieldhouse.

“As far as concrete – no, we will not be putting in a sidewalk. Then the accessible-path is the shoulder of the road," said Burrowbridge.

Burrowbridge says that’s because the Department of Justice says if there isn’t a sidewalk, then the “accessible path” is the shoulder of the road.

“It’s not a good answer,” Burrowbridge admits and Ashley agrees.

“To me, that makes no sense, because that’s still a safety issue," said Ashley.

News 12's I-Team found out the county finished inspecting all of its polling places for accessibility three weeks before the May elections. ADA officer Carole Burrowbrige tell us recommendations in red were fixes they made to polling places.

We called several churches and facilities, not owned by the city, but used as polling locations. We didn't find one that was informed the city was inspecting polling locations ahead of time or any locations that received any accessibility recommendations.

Burrowbridge confirms to News 12 polling locations not owned by the city weren’t told of the audit, or given recommendations.

"The scope of my job is not to go out into the community and enforce and educate the public on the ADA," said Burrowbridge.

Under an ADA self-evaluation and transition plan, the county drafted two years ago and adopted earlier this year, "enforcement" and “developing policies that require and support compliance with ADA and related regulations" does fall under the ADA Office.

 ADA Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan

It’s a tough reality for Ashley and others in her position.

“If I don't have the curb cuts, if I don't have the ramps, if I don't have the sidewalks I can't do it. If I'm with friends I have a little more accessibility because I have assistance. But, a lot of the time, I'm not. I try to be as independent as I possibly can," said Ashley.

We reached out to Augusta University to find out if the city informed them of their accessibility recommendations for their polling location.

A spokesman for Augusta University sent us this response:

“Augusta University is unaware of any ADA compliance issues at Christenberry Fieldhouse. Furthermore, Augusta University has been assured by the Richmond County Board of Elections Office that the location meets their needs and expectations. Augusta University is happy to partner with the Richmond County Board of Elections to support elections and the democratic process.”

Since we started digging into this, the Board of Elections told us they are organizing a meeting between the city and community advocates to address concerns with polling locations.

They tell us they are looking to do this the first part of August, but runoff elections happen this month.