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Spin Control: State may test out new ways to battle highway graffiti

Buddy Meola paints over the graffiti on High Bridge in 2022 in west Spokane. House Bill 1989, which was introduced by Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, seeks to deter graffiti vandalism.  (Spokesman-Review photo archives)

This year’s Legislature may have an issue that lifts the Cascade Curtain and unites Spokane residents with their West Side counterparts.

Graffiti.

Or more precisely, ways to thwart those who are bent on filling every available stretch of concrete along the state’s highways with it.

The Senate will likely get a chance in the next two weeks to green light a proposal to give the state Department of Transportation new weapons in the war against “decorating” walls, fences, pillars and overpasses with spray-painted words and symbols. The proposal, HB 1989, sailed through the House earlier this month on a 96-1 vote after moving through that chamber’s Transportation Committee with strong support.

Graffiti annoys lots of people, but what makes this a cross-state unifier is where those tools would be tested – on the two areas lawmakers think have some of the worst problems: the new North Spokane Corridor and Interstate 5 between Olympia and Seattle.

“When you drive up and down our freeways, there are hardly any blank spaces,” said Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor.

When some legislators gathered in Spokane to celebrate the opening of the latest section of the North South Corridor, they discovered graffiti vandals had already struck areas along the new roadway before the ribbon-cutting, Paul added.

As a public construction project, the corridor must comply with a state law that requires spending money on public art, said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the bill’s sponsor who was also at the ribbon-cutting. But vandals were trying to turn the new corridor into their own 7-mile canvas, he said.

Anyone who regularly travels the I-5 corridor (I usually make the trip once a week) knows the West Side has a similar problem, particularly around construction for the light rail system. Pillars for overpasses that will eventually carry the trains over the freeway are often tagged shortly after being constructed, even those that are in the median between north- and south-bound traffic.

The stretch of I-5 that enters Seattle from the south has graffiti on pillars and Jersey barriers so close to the roadway that one can only marvel at how the vandals manage to finish their work without being knocked down and run over by a passing vehicle, or wonder whether they hung upside down from an overpass to paint their message or inscribe their name.

Barkis’ proposal would give the state Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintenance of Washington’s highways, some $1 million for staff and experimental tools that could make it harder to “tag” areas around those roads and easier to get law enforcement to crack down on the taggers.

The state should try out special coatings that make it harder for paint to stick to the concrete, sort of like Teflon on a skillet, so graffiti might wash off with the rain, Barkis said. It should also test out drones that could reach high onto walls and pillars to paint over the graffiti.

Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, said drones are used to fertilize crops on some Washington farms, and orchardists might soon deploy them to pick apples.

They might be safer a way to clean areas that are difficult or dangerous to reach.

“I’m amazed at how (vandals) can get up that high and not be seen by people driving by,” Christian said.

The proposal also hopes to improve enforcement of state laws that make such vandalism a gross misdemeanor. Right now, the Department of Transportation has more than 1,500 traffic cameras that show live road conditions on many stretches of state highways.

Department staff monitor those cameras in centers around the state to be able to alert motorists and law enforcement about developing traffic problems.

When monitors see vandals spraying graffiti in an area covered by a camera, they call the State Patrol, Tony Leingang, a department official, told the House Transportation Committee when the proposal got its first hearing.

But those traffic centers are more lightly staffed at night than during the day, Leingang said.

Not all the cameras automatically record their live feeds, and those that do might not keep the recordings for more than three days.

After a discussion with department officials, the House Transportation Committee added $1 million to the agency’s budget to help cover the cost of extra employees, new equipment and coatings, with directions to test out different strategies and report its progress to the Legislature by Dec. 1.

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