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Discussion of When and How to Apply the Proposed Regulations for Trails in Compliance with ADA


Following is the portion of the report dealing with questions of how to apply the regulations proposed for trails. Issues of maintenance, alterations, mootor vehicle access, and execptions for compliance are discussed.

Outdoor Alterations and Maintenance.

Alterations and maintenance of trails were discussed extensively by the committee. As a result of these discussions, further guidance in determining actions considered to be "maintenance" and those considered to be an "alteration" is provided. This guidance is provided to assist designers and operators in distinguishing between the two actions. Where actions are considered an "alteration", certain technical provisions will apply. There are no obligations for following any technical provisions where the actions are considered "maintenance or repair."

Routine or periodic maintenance or repair of existing trails or trail segments is exempt from the technical and scoping provisions for accessible trails. Maintenance and repair is performed to return the trail or trail segment back to the standards or conditions to which it was originally designed and built. In outdoor environments, the ability to maintain the facility is generally more limited, occurring relatively infrequently, except in highly developed areas. This type of work is not an alteration; it does not change the original purpose, intent, or design of the trail. The act of maintenance and repair includes, but is not limited to:

  • Removal of debris and vegetation such as downed trees or broken branches in the trailway, clearing trail of encroaching brush or grasses, removing rock slides, etc.
  • Maintenance of trail tread such as filling of ruts and entrenchments; reshaping trail bed; repairing trail surface and washouts; installing rip rap (rock placed to retain cut and fill slopes); constructing retaining walls or cribbing to support trail tread, etc.
  • Erosion control and drainage, replacing or installing necessary drainage structures such as drainage dips, water bars, or culverts; realigning sections of trail to deter erosion or avoid boggy/marshy areas, etc.
  • Repair of trail and/or trailhead structures. This includes replacing deteriorated, damaged, or vandalized parts of structures such as sections of bridges, boardwalks, information kiosks, fencing, and railings; painting; removing graffiti, etc.

Where practicable and feasible, resource managers are encouraged to maximize the opportunity to improve accessibility on trails through trail maintenance and repair activities. Every time a trail is maintained, the opportunity to improve access is present.

Question 1. The committee recognized that the distinction between alterations and maintenance activities is as critical to picnic areas, campgrounds, and beaches as it is to trails. Although the previous discussion specifically refers to trails, the examples could be extrapolated to include other outdoor elements. Time constraints did not allow committee members to apply this important issue beyond trails. The committee is seeking input on how alteration and maintenance activities should be defined for picnic areas, campgrounds, and beaches, including outdoor recreation access and beach access routes.

Question 2. Section 36.211 of the ADA regulation requires the maintenance of accessible features. Unlike many buildings and interior spaces, accessible elements in the outdoor environment are subject to a variety of weather and climate conditions. Trails, for example, are often located in remote areas where there is little surveillance or supervision. Maintenance work is often performed on a seasonal basis and may be infrequent given declining budgets and workforce. In addition, outdoor elements and facilities are routinely subject to extremely heavy use and destructive vandalism. The committee is requesting information related to the effect of this requirement for accessible trails, picnic and camping facilities, and beaches.

Question 3. The committee is also interested in whether or not there should be different construction tolerances for the outdoor environment. For example, should the construction tolerances be greater with respect to trails, picnic areas, camping facilities, and beach access routes than interior accessible routes? If so, how should those tolerances be defined?

Relationship Between Use of All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and the Proposed Accessibility Guidelines for Trails

During the deliberations of the committee, some individuals expressed concern that applying the proposed accessibility guidelines to trails in the "back country" or lesser developed portions of outdoor recreation areas would make it more difficult for public land managing agencies to appropriately manage the use of all terrain vehicles (ATVs) and off highway vehicles (OHVs) in these areas. One expressed fear is that requiring land managing agencies to consider making trails in the lesser developed areas accessible according to the proposed guidelines would make it more difficult to control and restrict where these types of devices may be used.

The proposed guidelines for trails address their design, construction, and alteration in the same manner that other ADAAG guidelines address fixed facilities. They are similarly based on the dimensions and use patterns of those assistive devices commonly referenced throughout ADAAG. While in the outdoor environment it may be possible to encompass a wider variety of mobility enhancing equipment, the necessity of protecting the environment and maintaining the appropriateness of the setting might exclude certain of these, particularly all terrain (ATVs) or off highway vehicle (OHVs). That decision is reserved for the administrating agency or owner of the affected property and is beyond the scope of these guidelines.

Trails Used as Transportation Facilities (Shared Use Paths)

Many trails are used as non-motorized transportation facilities. Users may include bicyclists and skaters as well as pedestrians. The accessibility guidelines for outdoor developed areas apply to these trails. However, bicyclists and skaters have design needs which exceed the minimum guidelines for trails. A trail designed only to meet the proposed accessibility guidelines for trails may not be adequate, and possibly hazardous for bicyclists or skaters.

The primary design guide for bicycle and shared use facilities is the Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), 1999. The AASHTO Guide defines a Shared Use Path as a facility on exclusive right-of-way and minimal cross flow by motor vehicles. Users generally include bicyclists, skaters, and pedestrians. (In areas with heavy snow, shared use paths may be used by cross-country skiers or snowmobilers.) A summary of how the AASHTO Guide relates to the proposed accessibility guidelines for trails is included in the appendix. In most cases, the AASHTO Guide requires a greater level of accessibility when designing trails for pedestrians, including bicyclists and skaters.

Application of Proposed Accessibility Guidelines

Proposed section 16.1 requires all areas of newly designed or newly constructed and altered portions of existing trails connecting to designated trailheads or accessible trails to comply with this section. Proposed 16.1 also requires all newly constructed and altered camping facilities, picnic areas, and beach access routes to comply with section 16. It is recognized that compliance with this section will not always result in facilities that will be accessible to all persons with disabilities. These guidelines recognize that often the natural environment will prevent full compliance with certain technical provisions.

Committee members were concerned about the application of these proposed accessibility guidelines to new and altered trails connecting to portions of existing trails. They were concerned about the development of newly constructed trails connecting to an existing trails, where it was highly unlikely that the existing portion could ever be made accessible. They were specifically concerned about newly constructed and altered trails in the "middle of nowhere." To address this concern, section 16.1 clarifies that the technical provisions apply only to newly designed and constructed trails, and altered portions of an existing trail that "connects to an accessible trail" or "designated trailhead." Where new trails connect to an existing trail that is not accessible, the technical provisions do not apply. Additionally, the technical provisions do not apply where the new or altered portion is not connected to a designated trailhead.

Proposed section 16.1.1 defines the extent of application. Departures are permitted from certain technical provisions of this section, where specified, and where at least one of four conditions is present for trails, picnic and camping facilities, and beaches. Each technical provision must be examined individually to determine whether a departure from that provision is permitted. 16.1.1 does not provide an overall exemption of the entire trail or outdoor element. When a departure is permitted, the proposed guidelines specifically provide an exception to the respective technical provision. This is essential as the outdoor environment is very different than a constructed indoor environment. Factors which influence the ability to provide fully accessible facilities such as soil, surrounding vegetation, hydrology, terrain, and surface characteristics, are fundamental to the outdoor area. Where trails are concerned, the committee recognized that without the opportunity to depart from the technical provisions, compliance may significantly alter the nature of the outdoor experience.

When the condition for departure no longer exists, the technical provisions re-apply. For example, the clear width of a trail tread may be reduced because of a significant natural feature. Once the trail passes this feature, all other technical provisions for width shall apply. This approach also applies when designing certain outdoor elements also included in this section.

The conditions that permit departures from specific technical provisions are described below.

1. Where compliance would cause substantial harm to cultural, historic, religious, or significant natural features or characteristics;

For example, a significant natural feature may include a large rock, outcrop, tree, or a water feature which would block or interfere with trail construction or would be directly or indirectly altered or destroyed by construction of the trail to the extent that the trail could not, at that point, be made accessible. This includes areas protected under Federal or State laws, such as areas with threatened or endangered species or designated wetlands that could be threatened or destroyed by full compliance with the technical provisions. It also includes areas where compliance would directly or indirectly substantially harm natural habitat or vegetation.

Significant cultural features include areas such as archaeological sites, sacred lands, burial grounds and cemeteries, Indian tribal protected sites, etc. Significant historical features include properties on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or other places of recognized historic value. Significant religious features include Indian sacred sites and other properties designated or held sacred by an organized religious belief or church.

2. Where compliance would substantially alter the nature of the setting or the purpose of the facility, or portion of the facility;

Examples include a trail intended to provide a rugged experience such as a cross country training trail with a steep grade or a challenge course with abrupt and severe changes in level. If these types of trails were flattened out or otherwise constructed to comply with the technical provisions for accessible trails, they would not provide the intended and desired level of challenge and difficulty to users. Trails that traverse over boulders and rocky outcrops, are another example. The purpose of such a trail is to provide people with the opportunity to climb the rocks. To remove the obstacles along the way or reroute the rail around the rocks would destroy the purpose of the trail. The "nature of the setting" may also be compromised by actions such as widening for the construction of an imported surfaces on a trail in a remote location or removing ground vegetation in meadows or alpine areas.

Trails and other outdoor elements such as picnic and camping areas are designed to provide a particular opportunity for the user. Throughout the discussions regarding these outdoor elements and accessibility, many committee members were concerned that complying with the technical provisions could change the nature of some recreation opportunities. Further, compliance could negatively impact the unique characteristics of the natural setting, the reasons why people choose to recreate in the outdoor rather than the indoor environment. People using primitive trails or camping areas, for example, often experience the outdoor environment in a more natural state with limited or no development. Evidence of manufactured building materials or engineered construction techniques in such a setting can change its primitive character, and therefore, the user's experience. In these settings, people are generally looking for a higher degree of challenge and risk where they can use their outdoor/survival skills. Compliance with the technical provisions, particularly those related to surface and obstacles, could destroy the "natural" or undeveloped" nature of the setting. This condition addresses these concerns.

3. Where compliance would require construction methods or materials that are prohibited by Federal, State, or local regulations or statutes;

For example, Federally designated and some State designated Wilderness Areas prohibit use of mechanized equipment, limiting construction methods to hand tools. Imported materials may be prohibited in order to maintain the integrity of the natural ecosystem. Construction methods and materials employed in designated wetlands or coastal areas are strictly limited. For traditional, historic, or other reasons, many trails are built using only the native soil for surfacing, which may not be firm and stable. Federal statutes such as the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act, and the State and local statutes often impose restrictions to protect or address environmental concerns. Many aquatic features are protected under Federal or State laws. Some constructed water crossings, which would be required to provide accessibility, may not be permitted under certain laws or regulations.

"Local regulations and statutes" have been included to address conditions where "conservation easements" or "development rights" programs have prohibited or restricted construction methods and practices. For example, where land is purchased from farms, certain use restrictions may prohibit the importation of surfacing. On the other hand, local regulations or statutes may not be developed or initiated with the sole purpose of prohibiting use by people with disabilities. For example, initiating a new local regulation that arbitrarily restricts trail width to a dimension that would not allow passage of wheelchairs or other mobility devices from accessing a trail, is not permitted under this conditional departure.

4. Where compliance would not be feasible due to terrain or the prevailing construction practices.

For example, complying with the technical provisions, particularly running slope (16.2.7), in areas of steep terrain may require extensive cuts or fills that would be difficult to construct and maintain, or cause drainage and erosion problems. Also, in order to construct a trail on some steep slopes, the trail may become significantly longer causing a much greater impact on the environment. Certain soils are highly susceptible to erosion. Other soils expand and contract along with water content. If compliance requires techniques that conflict with the natural drainage or existing soil, the trail would be difficult, if not impossible to maintain. This condition may also apply where construction methods for particularly difficult terrain or an obstacle would require the use of equipment other than that typically used throughout the length of the trail. One example is requiring the use of a bulldozer to remove a rock outcropping when hand tools are commonly used.

Several of these conditions for departures are consistent with other exceptions in ADAAG and the ADA. For example, it may be impracticable in new construction to follow ADAAG where soil and terrain pose obstacles which cannot be remedied. Compliance with the provision for a firm and stable surface might conflict with the prevailing construction practices by requiring the importation of a new surfacing material that would not otherwise have been used. For example, if the prevailing construction practices would not include the importation of a new surface material and the natural surface material could not be made firm and stable, the trail may not be able to comply with that specific provision.

The term "not feasible" is used in this situation to specify what is "reasonably do-able". It does not refer to the technical feasibility or possibility of full compliance with the technical provisions. For example, it may be feasible to provide a trail with a 1:20 slope or less up a 1,500 foot tall mountain using heavy construction equipment, but the trail would be at least 5.8 miles long (rather than 2 miles long under a traditional back-country layout), and may cause inappropriate environmental and visual impacts. The intent of this conditional departure is to recognize that the effort and resources required to comply would not be disproportionately high relative to the level of access created. Although technically feasible, the effort and resources required are not "reasonable."

Trail construction practices vary greatly, from the use of volunteer labor and hand tools, to professional construction with heavy , mechanized equipment. For alterations to an existing trail, the "prevailing construction practices" are defined as the methods typically used for construction or maintenance of the trail. For new trails, it is recognized that the land manager determines the construction practices to be used on each trail. However, the "choice" of construction practices are primarily determined by the available resources (e.g. machinery, skilled operators, finances) and the environmental conditions (e.g., soil type and depth, vegetation, natural slope). The intent of this conditional departure is to ensure that compliance with the technical provisions does not require the use of construction practices which are above and beyond the skills and resources of the trail building organization. It is not intended to automatically exempt organization from the technical provisions simply because of a particular construction practice, (e.g. the use of hand tools or to suggest that hand tools should be used to avoid compliance) when more expedient methods and resources are available.

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