Graffiti along freeway signs creating problems for Seattle-area drivers
Seattle’s tight streets, steep hills, triangle-shaped intersections, and maze of one-ways can fluster even the most experienced motorist, but local commercial truck driver Garret Lloyd King was feeling confident as he rounded the familiar bend from westbound I-90 to southbound I-5.
As he entered Seattle by T-Mobile Park, however, the Exit 2B sign threw him a curve-ball. The 2 and the arrow were completely covered in black spray paint, illegible to anyone trying to keep their eyes on the road and just glance at the sign.
Flustered, King took the exit as he was supposed to, but got on Edgar Martinez Drive going toward the baseball stadium instead of following southbound I-5. Soon King was stuck navigating the downtown streets in his large truck instead of bypassing downtown on the freeway.
It was a mistake he made more than once.
“The first few times coming around there I kind of missed that turn because I wasn’t sure which it was, in a sense,” he said.
If King — a lifelong Pacific Northwesterner and truck driver of many years — got turned around by a vandalized sign on a familiar thoroughfare, he wondered how delivery drivers from out-of-state or tourists might struggle with finding their way around.
“I know my way around pretty well, but if I have a struggle with that, imagine those who aren’t from around here coming around to go south on I-5 right there,” he said. “How many times have people ended up down on Edgar Martinez [Drive] down there because they can’t see the sign?”
A trend among freeway signs
After the I-90 incident, other freeway signs whose words were covered by graffiti began jumping out at King as he drove around Seattle on the job. There was the southbound I-5 entrance at Spring Street, the eastbound I-90 entrance on Rainier Avenue, and the northbound I-5 entrance from Roanoke Street — illegible due to black spray paint.
“There are so many different areas — it’s hard to name them all,” he said.
Freeway signs, even if they sit on a city street like Roanoke denoting an entrance ramp, are still the responsibility of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
WSDOT communications consultant Joseph Calabro said that graffiti vandalism is a constant struggle for the department. Tips for problematic freeway signs come in from drivers and law enforcement alike.
“It’s something we’re very aware of — we spend a lot of money, our maintenance crews go out and have to replace signs or clean signs very regularly,” he said.
However, this is challenging because WSDOT does not possess the resources for a full-time graffiti tracking-and-removal crew. The same crews inspecting, fixing and replacing vandalized freeway signs are in charge of other safety improvements, such as guard rail repair, lane striping, paving, and plowing during winter storms.
“The signs we have on our roadways, they’re there to help drivers reach their destinations in a timely manner,” he said. “So when vandals paint over these signs, that’s a real frustration for us.”
Many of the safety improvements have to get done during warmer months, making it harder to allocate resources toward graffiti cleanup during the summer. Removing graffiti from some signs requires lane closures, which is a multi-person job.
Others, such as signs on the shoulder, are simpler and only require one or two employees. Signs are cleaned at night whenever possible to prevent congestion. An anti-graffiti coating that goes on the signs when they’re made helps the spray paint come off faster.
Freeway signs with offensive language, or signs where the front of the sign is covered — such as the ones Lloyd King was referring to — are prioritized.
King understands the difficulties with resources, but feels that perhaps WSDOT needs to re-organize its priorities.
“I think that falls into a category of public safety that they need to maybe refocus their purpose on and pay attention to,” he said.
But making matters even harder for WSDOT and its limited crews is the fact that cleaning a sign once does not stop it from being a target again.
“Unfortunately, some of these signs that we clean or replace are routinely tagged again,” Calabro said. “So it’s a real frustration.”
WSDOT does not typically track each cleanup job, but Calabro did note that in one case last summer, signs on southbound I-5 at Dearborn Street were tagged just two weeks after being replaced.
Calabro encourages anyone who spots a spray-painted sign to make a formal report on WSDOT’s website.
“Graffiti on our right-of-way is illegal, it’s irresponsible, it’s dangerous, and I would say that it needs to stop,” he said. “Because our crews have a lot of responsibilities as it is, and this is just adding to those.”