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Washington looks at new ways to clean up graffiti along state highways

When WSDOT has projects that require lane closures, we also work with our contractors to cover up graffiti, like they’re doing here on the 2021-2022 project on southbound I-5 from I-90 to Spokane Street in Seattle.
Courtesy Washington Department of Transportation
When WSDOT has projects that require lane closures, we also work with our contractors to cover up graffiti, like they’re doing here on the 2021-2022 project on southbound I-5 from I-90 to Spokane Street in Seattle.

Aerial drones could be part of the effort, which will be carried out under laws the Legislature approved this year.

Is it a bird, a plane? No, it’s a drone spraying paint over graffiti along Washington’s state roads.

Washington may soon employ aerial drone technology to deal with a growing graffiti problem on highway infrastructure. Lawmakers this session passed a bill and set aside $1 million for a Department of Transportation pilot program focused on finding new ways to erase spray paint from road signs, walls and bridges.

The proposal passed 96-1 in the House and 38-11 in the Senate with only Democrats opposed. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law last week.

As the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee, bill sponsor Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he had spent time traveling up and down the state’s highways.

“It became clear to me that the graffiti on all of the beautiful work we’ve been doing is getting out of control,” Barkis said.

The amount the state spends on graffiti cleanup every year has been on the rise, hitting a peak in 2020 of more than $700,000. In the last two-year budget cycle, the state spent $1.4 million, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The department said it has seen an increase in graffiti in recent years especially on newly completed bridges and overpasses or on construction projects that are closed to traffic.

But graffiti has struck more difficult-to-reach places, too. Last February, for example, two overhead signs on Interstate 5 near State Route 512 in Tacoma were defaced and cost between $40,000 to $50,000 to replace.

With a shortfall in funding for maintenance and preservation, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, said the department isn’t always able to clean up graffiti quickly and must prioritize other needs, such as road repair, snow and ice removal, or traffic signal fixes.

He said he hopes that technology like drones can help.

The new program will start in June and run for about a year. The department is encouraged to focus on the Interstate 5 Puget Sound region and the north Spokane corridor.

“I am confident this pilot program will make significant strides in combating graffiti vandalism and reestablishing a culture of respect for our shared spaces,” Barkis said in a statement.

The department must also look at ways that it can identify people who damage property. An original version of the bill would have required the department to use its tolling and work zone cameras to do this.

But in committee hearings on the bill, the department expressed concerns with the requirements.

Tony Leingang, at the Department of Transportation, said the staff who are in charge of monitoring the state’s traffic cameras are already stretched thin.

“We do have a large network of cameras, but we don’t have people who can look at all cameras at one time,” he said.

In a blog post from last year, the department also said it would take significant investment from the state to use its cameras to store videos of people defacing signs or other property.

The final version of the pilot program does not require the department to use the cameras to catch illegal graffiti activity but encourages it to look at ways it might be able to take this step.

The departmentsaid it is exploring options for sanctioned public spaces for graffiti artists. Last year, the department said it was working with its artists-in-residence program to find a way to do that.

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