City of Tacoma responds to crosswalk vigilantes

Staff writerJuly 7, 2013 

A group of runners recently took advantage of a citizen-painted crosswalk in the Triangle neighborhood of downtown Tacoma. City workers ground out the crosswalk after two weeks, prompting a group of pedestrian and bike advocates to become vigilantes who painted eight more in the Stadium District.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SEONG SHIN

Of course Tacoma needs more bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks. City traffic engineers say they’re the first to admit that.

But it’s just not safe for people to take matters into their own hands.

Since May, workers from the city of Tacoma have removed 10 unauthorized crosswalks around the Stadium District.

The people who claim to be responsible have told The News Tribune they’re seeking less talk and more action when it comes to pedestrian safety.

“I have no issue whatsoever with the message they’re trying to send,” said Kurtis Kingsolver, the city’s interim public works director. “It’s the means and methods that are the issue.”

On Friday, city traffic engineer Josh Diekmann provided data to The News Tribune about car-pedestrian collisions in the city. Just 2 percent of the approximately 4,500 annual collisions in Tacoma involve a pedestrian or bicyclist, he said. About half of those happen at places other than intersections.

Looking specifically at the six intersections targeted by the vigilante painters, he found one pedestrian collision in the past three years. He had to search back more than 25 years to find pedestrian accidents at any of the other intersections, and then he found only two.

During the time the rogue markings were in place, no pedestrian collisions were reported.

In an interview June 27, Kingsolver addressed some of the issues raised by the guerrilla crosswalk painters in an interview also attended by Diekmann, disability access specialist Gail Himes and city public relations specialist Carrie McCausland.

Here is that interview, condensed and edited:

The city has said the citizen-painted crosswalks are a safety hazard. Has anyone been hurt while using them?

I am not aware of any.

Why does the city object to the crosswalks they painted?

There are nationally accepted standards for what a crosswalk is, what it looks like, and how it’s installed. It’s like a stop sign: You don’t see blue stop signs. These were paint on a roadway. They were different colors, different things, different looks, dots.

I get the intent and the message they were trying to send, but they’re not crosswalks. And that’s part of why they were taken out.

What is the other part?

We are required by federal law (the Americans with Disabilities Act) to make crosswalks accessible for everybody. Everyone has a right to use our street system. We have an obligation to build it so everyone can use it.

Why is this important to you?

There are two parts of my career that were extremely relevant in how I look at ADA ramps and the disabled community.

Several years ago I went for a walk on Puyallup Avenue while they were building the transit center, with a guy who is mostly blind. The meeting with him really pertained more to stuff put in the right of way. But as I watched him try to navigate the sidewalk, it was a significant eye-opener on how difficult it is for someone to maneuver who has that disability.

The second event was just me walking downtown and watching a gentleman in an electronic wheelchair go down a ramp and fall. As I picked this man up, he continually apologized. And I kept thinking, why is this person apologizing? I felt responsible because it was an old-style ramp and didn’t fit any standards at all. It changed the way I looked at this forever.

The painters say they chose spots for their crosswalks that indicate to pedestrians that that’s where they’re supposed to cross. There are ramps on each side of the street. There are yellow safety strips. The only thing missing is the stripes.

They’re correct. But in many places the ramps don’t meet current ADA standards. So if I were to install a crosswalk there, that would be considered an improvement, and I’d have to pull out those ramps and build them to today’s current standards. We have a lot of really old ramps, and we won’t do anything with them necessarily until there’s an improvement.

In one spot the painters targeted, near Wright Park and the Hob Nob restaurant, the ramps are new. Why isn’t there a crosswalk there?

We don’t want to just paint lines. We want to do it right. We want to put in a flashing beacon. We’ve been working with the neighborhood council to put in some money for a flashing crosswalk. That’s why we had Metro Parks put in the ramps. We did not require them to put in the flashing beacon. We thought that was our responsibility.

How does the city decide to install crosswalks?

We spend most of our resources on schools, primarily elementary and middle schools. Then we look at locations with high pedestrian traffic volume. Then there are people calling with concerns. Most of those are about schools.

The painters say people in the Triangle neighborhood have asked for years for improvements without success.

We work with whoever contacts us. We take it seriously. We go out and do an investigation. There’s a whole process we go through, looking at traffic patterns, distances. But the idea that you can come and ask us, and if we don’t do it, we’re not listening — that’s difficult for me. There’s just a lot of need.

Do you have a list of pedestrian improvements?

We don’t. I can’t sit here and tell you we shouldn’t do more for pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s an area we need to spend a lot more time on. There are parts of this city that still need lane-lines on the street, or painted curbs. Lack of resources — not just staff, but funding — makes that difficult. We’re trying to get more resources. We’ll begin to prioritize locations. We’ve got a long way to go.

Last fall the city received recommendations from the Citizens Neighborhood Street Improvement and Safety Task Force. The painters cite that task force’s work as “token participation” — talk about ideas and plans and never execute them.

Diekmann: The intent was not to focus on bicycle and pedestrian issues. The City Council convened the task force to address where can we get more money for transportation. And, if we got more money, how should we spend it?

Kingsolver: It wasn’t that we didn’t listen. We still value that information. If we move forward with other resources, we will be using that document. It was a good effort.

Do you ever think there’s too much talk and not enough action?

Kingsolver: I’ll never say that I wish I couldn’t do more. But there’s significant value to citizen-led plans and what these folks went through last year, to prioritize what we do.

Most of what we do, a significant amount, and I can’t stress that enough, is grant-based. I just produced a document a few weeks ago, based on what grants have been received and what money gets spent, and it was $310 million in the past five years, mostly in grants.

McCausland: The processes that you referred to — that some people may feel like are all talk — are key for getting grant money. If you can’t show you have community support and a good plan for the project, it won’t get funded.

Why does the city have to rely on grant money to do basic infrastructure work?

We’re no different than any other city. We compete for both regional dollars and local dollars. We just don’t have a lot of resources through the tax structure that we have. All of our business tax and all of our property tax, in addition to more taxes, pay for police and fire. And that’s not untypical of a lot of cities. We don’t have a lot of money set aside for a lot of programs. Not just streets, but libraries.

We’ve deferred a lot of maintenance. That’s a nationwide problem.

Most of the grants we write require a 13.5 percent match. So I’m paying $135,000 on a million-dollar project. That’s a pretty big bang for your buck. So of that $300 million we got in grants, the city spent $40 million.

Another factor in grant-funding is time. The Puyallup River Bridge took us about nine years to put the funding together to move that project along. Stadium Way took six.

That’s the process. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how we live. And I’m not just talking about road improvements, I’m talking about traffic signals, you name it. That’s how we fund the bulk of our work.

The painters said they’ll do a fundraising campaign for bike and pedestrian improvements. Would the city be receptive to that?

I’m all in. With one clarification: If the analysis we do determines it’s a good spot for a crosswalk.

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