Seattle mayor wants state to take quicker action on graffiti removal along highways

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wants the state to take quicker action on removing graffiti along state highways that run through Seattle, saying he is willing to tear up a long-standing memorandum of understanding between the state and city, if necessary. 

Harrell made his remarks after announcing "One Seattle Day of Service" in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood on Monday. He’s encouraging anyone to pick up a paint roller and remove graffiti in neighborhoods on May 21.

"The freeways are totally unacceptable," he told FOX 13 after the announcement. 

For 13 years, the city and the state have had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that allows the city to take care of issues like encampments on state right-of-ways.  The MOU was created because the Washington Department of Transportation could not offer the services the city could when it came to encampment removals.

But, the amount of graffiti on highway walls, bridge abutments, tunnels, signs and almost anything that can be painted has grown dramatically.

"The first thing I’m asking is, do we need to revisit, revise or terminate it or start a new one," Harrell said.  "Because I do not want to move at the pace the state me want to move. I want to move at our pace, which is fast." 

The city of Seattle will spend $3.7 million this year on graffiti removal, employing the equivalent of 15.5 full-time people, the mayor said.

By contrast, WSDOT said has spent $1.4 million in 2019-2021 on graffiti removal on all state highways in the state.

When asked if the Mayor had a strategy to combat the growing graffiti problem in the city, he said, "we are going to have a multi-prong and investment strategy and a new sense of urgency and teamwork and yes we are going to ask people to help out, I’ll buy the paint and the brush."

The Downtown Seattle Association President Jon Scholes said it's Metropolitan Improvement District cleaning program is spending more than $1 million of its budget on graffiti removal, with a vast amount going to paint over graffiti on public property like parking pay stations.

"No one is tracking graffiti and it just pops up hours after it's been removed," said Quynh Pham, Executive Director of the Friends of Little Saigon.  She said she appreciates the city's focus on solving issues like crime and graffiti in the neighborhood but asks that it be sustained by the City.

The city’s municipal code requires businesses to maintain their property and remove graffiti in a timely fashion.  The mayor suggests the state be held to the same standard along the highways.

"If we sometimes, as a city, penalized business owners for not acting quickly enough, we need the state to act with the same sense of urgency," the mayor said.

A spokesperson for WSDOT said a state crew in the northwest region of the state, that includes Seattle, removes graffiti four days a week.

WSDOT Director of Communications Lars Erickson said areas are prioritized that "have offensive language and/or don’t need specialized equipment, traffic control or law enforcement".

"For the safety of our employees, we do not attempt to access certain areas without support from law enforcement, which has lately only been available for critical emergent needs," said Erickson.  "Vandals who do graffiti take great risks to get to locations that are very dangerous and difficult for crews to access. These vandals take risks that we cannot."

The Seattle Police Department had a detective dedicated to investigating graffiti crimes for nearly a decade.  After a reorganization in 2020, the full-time position was eliminated and now graffiti crimes fall into the hands of the ‘general investigative’ unit said an SPD spokesperson.

Harrell said the city is in talks with the state to negotiate a ‘renewed’ response to crime, homeless and graffiti along the highways.

"Hopefully this summer, you are going to see some progress on the state highway system - it’s awful," said Harrell. 

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