By Tim Eberly
Come late September, sidewalks in downtown Havre will become more handicap-friendly.
With the help of a federal grant, the city of Havre and the Montana Department of Transportation are planning to reconstruct 20 curbs in downtown Havre to make them handicap-accessible. Ground-breaking for the project, which will cost approximately $291,000, is slated for September.
"It's definitely going to be an improvement to the city," said Havre resident Larry Nitz, a paraplegic since 1983, when he fell off a power pole while working as a lineman with the Montana Power Co. "I know people with less ability than me that could have an accident or could be prevented from getting up on the (existing) curbs. It's somewhat challenging."
Several handicap-accessible curbs exist at intersections in front of Wells Fargo Bank, McKay Realty and Flynn Realty in downtown Havre. But most of the curbs downtown do not have gentle inclines for the benefit of people in wheelchairs, blind people and others with disabilities.
"Essentially, the disabled community is able to get out into the street but they have nowhere to go," said John Pavsek, an engineer with Helena-based Morrison Maierle Inc., who was present at a meeting Monday to inform the public about the project. "What we're doing is completing the project."
The lack of handicap-accessible curbs has hindered the profits of certain Havre businesses, Nitz said.
"If you're in a wheelchair and there isn't a curb cut, you're not going to access any of the businesses on that block," Nitz, 55, said. "Some of the curb cuts are poor; others are nonexistent."
The bulk of the project cost will come from a $241,000 federal grant. The state of Montana will chip in $29,000 while Havre will contribute $20,000.
Twenty curbs, all of them on Second and Third streets in the core area of town, will be reconstructed, involving seven different intersections, said Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director Ann Marie Robinson. Blueprints for the project, which were presented at the meeting at City Hall on Monday, meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It's a common sense approach to building ramps," Pavsek said of the project, which has been in the works for six months. "It's not as complicated as other projects on urban routes. You just have to make it easy as possible for the disabled community to traverse through here without getting hit by a car."
Bear Paw Development wrote the grant application for the project, which will be funded through a urban highway pilot improvement program. The ADA standards require ramps to be at least 36 inches wide Havre's will be 60 inches wide marked, flat and without poles or barriers. To increase the ramps' visibility, they will be red "so a visually impaired handicapped person could actually spot it, and it'll be a target," Pavsek said.
As its contribution to the project, the city of Havre will construct catch basins, or drain inlets, at all the downtown intersections.
Robinson and Pavsek did not know the percentage of handicapped residents in Havre. Acknowledged Robinson: "There's not a big group of people that are."
Nitz, who has been an advisor on the project, said the city needs more handicapped parking at downtown intersections. "I have to run down the street in my wheelchair just to get to some of the stores," he said.
Parents could also benefit from the sloped curbs. "With parents pushing children in strollers, it'll make it a lot easier for those trying to get their children up on the sidewalks," Nitz said. "There are pluses for everybody, all around."