Stu Bykofsky: Those cement bubbles on sidewalk corners are costing you a lot of money!

"Truncated domes," as they are known in federalese, alert the visually impaired to upcoming intersections.
"Truncated domes," as they are known in federalese, alert the visually impaired to upcoming intersections. (STU BYKOFSKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: October 09, 2012

TRUNCATED DOMES.

First time hearing those words? The little bumps under your feet are picking the city's pocket.

Truncated domes - also known as "tactile warning strips" - are those bumps the size of elevator call buttons that blister the surface of recently installed ramps at street corners, by order of the feds. The cost to the city - meaning you, the taxpayer - is astronomical.

The outlay is required by changing federal regulations, according to Terry Gillen, director of federal affairs for the city of Philadelphia. She is, in effect, the liaison to President Obama from Mayor Nutter, who has been a ferocious advocate for the president's re-election.

Philly was an early leader in installing ramps in 1995, under Mayor Rendell, Gillen says, "because the advocacy community sued." Curbs were cut to make them wheelchair-accessible.

OK, the city needed to be goosed into action, but it moved, so far installing 4,958 ramps at 826 intersections. Here's the shocker: The cost of installing the now-mandated ramps at each of the city's 22,000 intersections will be $858 million, according to Streets Department Deputy Commissioner David Perri. (Ramps are upgraded when other paving work is done.)

The cost is high in part because in 2010 the government mandated two ramps per corner instead of the previous one. It had a good reason. It always has a good reason.

Installing new ramps eats up 65 percent of the city's $20-million annual paving budget, leaving only one-third for everything else, says Perri. Each Center City ramp costs $7,500, or $60,000 per intersection. We aren't getting much bang from those bucks.

This issue is separate from the crappy craftsmanship that results in lakes' forming at many curb-cuts after a rainfall. Some contractors haven't been able to master a technique known to ancient Rome - the high technology of using gravity to make water flow to a sewer. I wrote about that in 2006, but we still have lakes after rain, we still pay for shoddy work, and no city official seems to give a hot damn.

No ramp installed in the '90s meets current federal standards because the feds keep moving the goal posts. Truncated domes were ordered "so that persons with visual impairments can detect when they are approaching a street-crossing," Perri says.

Gillen and the mayor are not unsympathetic to people living with disabilities, but what about the cost to all of us? (Truncated domes, by the way, must be in a contrasting color to the ramp, the feds say, to make them more visible to the visually impaired.)

In an era when we don't have money for schools, cops, teachers, firefighters, hospitals - you name it - just how necessary is this minor upgrade?

If you are mystified by why conservatives are steamed about excessive regulation and unfunded mandates rolling out of Washington, this provides a glimpse - but no Democratic politician will scream bloody murder as long as there is a Democrat in the White House.

City reps are talking to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration "to reconsider a 2006 memo that serves as the basis for the current requirements," says Steve Buckley, director of policy and planning in the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities. Then the city wants "to have a dialogue with the Department of Justice about how we can achieve our goals in a smarter and more fiscally responsible manner," Buckley says. (Do we expect Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute Michael Nutter?)

We have truncated domes. What will they dream up next?


Contact Stu Bykofsky at stubyko@phillynews.com or 215-854-5977. Join Stu on Facebook. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Byko.

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