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Fact Check: Do rainbow crosswalks break the law? Did they cost tax payers $66,000?

When it was announced that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray spent $66,000 on nearly a dozen rainbow colored crosswalks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, Jason Rantz says a number of people had a number of questions. (Photo: Mayor Ed Murray)

When it was announced that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray spent $66,000 on nearly a dozen rainbow-colored crosswalks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a number of people had a number of questions. Is this necessary? Was this worth the cost? Did my tax dollars go to this? Is this even legal?

Now, some didn’t ask questions at all. They created their own narrative that this was a “waste of tax dollars” or that it is “clearly illegal.” Others, liking the symbolism of the crosswalks, pretended the financial concerns were silly and insignificant.

I’m going to attempt to answer some of the valid questions, realizing that some of you have legitimate concerns, while others are hiding behind these questions to simply display your anti-gay bigotry.

Did Tax Dollars Go to this Project?

No sooner was this project unveiled that people assumed tax dollars paid for this project. On the one hand, it’s a reasonable assumption to make (governments generally spend our tax dollars on projects; Seattle Department of Transportation certainly has a reputation for spending our tax dollars on bad programs and policies). But people jumped the gun claiming that tax dollars funded the project.

Mayor Murray responded to the claim Tuesday morning that “most of the cost of this are covered by the fees we charge developers for various street use.” And SDOT confirms that the “work was paid for primarily using Street Use fees, which come from developers using the public right of way.” I generally agree that tax dollars shouldn’t go to projects like this because it’s essentially a form of activism, but in this case, the bulk of the dollars came from Street Use fees; so you should revise your criticisms with that context in mind.

What about Funding Body Cameras?

I’ve heard criticism that the mayor is spending funds unnecessarily on this, when there are other projects and programs that need funding. KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson, for example, argued on Tuesday:

We don’t have enough money to get body cams on our cops. But for his passion of gay rights issues, Ed Murray &#8212 in last week and a half &#8212 has spent more than $100,000 taxpayer dollars to fly to Israel and paint rainbow-colored crosswalks on Capitol Hill.

I certainly understand the sentiment and the perception. I think it’s a valid argument to wonder if the mayor is prioritizing funding correctly. Transportation infrastructure is awful in Seattle, we have a hell of a homelessness problem, and body cameras are a program I wholeheartedly want to see promoted.

But using the rainbow crosswalk and Israeli trip is, in a way, a straw man argument. It’s irrelevant. There is one pot of money that is picked from on a whim. There are budgets. Seattle Police Department has a budget the way Seattle Department of Transportation has a budget. Certain funds are allocated to certain departments and programs. You can’t simply reach into another department, raid their budgets, and pass it along to another department. There are some reasonable checks to that move.

There is also some additional context to consider. For one, President Obama promised to help fund the body cameras program for police departments nationwide. Congress has yet to allocate funds. But it’s also important to keep in mind that the body cameras program will cost roughly $2 million for the first two years. Though it seems Dori’s $100,000 figure is on the high side, that doesn’t come remotely close to covering the program, assuming you can simply move budgets around without any oversight.

Rainbow Colors are Against the Law, Right?

No, not right.

Listeners have emailed and messaged me on Facebook claiming, essentially, that all crosswalks have to be white in order to satisfy state law. Specifically, critics point to MUTCD 3B.18 which states:

When crosswalk lines are used, they shall consist of solid white lines that mark the crosswalk. They shall not be less than 6 inches or greater than 24 inches in width.

As is usually the case, pulling out one particular line in a massive policy document doesn’t give the full picture. So let me get into the weeds here. MUTCD defines crosswalks:

(a) that part of a roadway at an intersection included within the connections of the lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of the highway measured from the curbs or in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the traversable roadway, and in the absence of a sidewalk on one side of the roadway, the part of a roadway included within the extension of the lateral lines of the sidewalk at right angles to the center line; (b) any portion of a roadway at an intersection or elsewhere distinctly indicated as a pedestrian crossing by pavement marking lines on the surface, which might be supplemented by contrasting pavement texture, style, or color. (emphasis mine)

Federal guidelines for crosswalks require crosswalk lines, which are defined by MUTCD as “white pavement marking lines that identify a crosswalk.” The code cited by listeners is about crosswalk lines, not crosswalks. As SDOT notes, “treatment inside the crosswalk lines is deemed supplemental.” As you can see, you have white pavement outlines for the crosswalk here:


This is why you sometimes see brick crosswalks, as they have in parts of Columbia City, or grid patterns, as they have in parts of Wallingford. Now, if you believe those crosswalks are breaking code, feel free to protest with the same passion you’re protesting these rainbow-colored crosswalks.

I’m also told by SDOT that the city engineer has reviewed and approved these crosswalks, ensuring that they comply with state and federal standards.

Now, could this be “distracting” as some folks claim? Maybe. That is a fair point. And to that concern, SDOT will be monitoring the situation to make sure this doesn’t lead to accidents. If it does, and SDOT doesn’t react, we will hold them accountable.

Why Are You Really Upset?

Do you have any further questions? Send me a note and I’ll look into it. But if you’re outraged, ask yourself why you’re really outraged? I think you can legitimately present issues with this move. I had legitimate issues before I fact checked and reflected on this story. But I also think some people are using legitimate questions as a means to cover for their anti-gay sentiments. If you don’t like that this is celebratory of the LGBT community, then say so, and we’ll have that discussion. I encourage you to listen to my take on this crosswalk issue here.

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