An evening forum at City Hall showed Tacoma’s rogue street painters succeeded in sparking an urgent public debate about the city’s need for more crosswalks and bike lanes.
How long the urgency will last isn’t clear.
The Wednesday forum was an hour of public testimony and remarks from city officials. The New Tacoma Neighborhood Council, which sponsored the gathering, agreed to be the conduit for people’s comments and concerns, which it will deliver to the city. In two months, everyone will meet again for a status report.
More than 50 people crowded a seventh-floor conference room to share their concerns over pedestrian safety. The forum was convened after people painted 10 crosswalks at six intersections across the Stadium District in May and June.
People talked about specific intersections, traffic signal timing, law enforcement and requirements for disabled people. Underpinning it all was fear.
“You are taking your life in your hands when you are crossing,” said Nina Osberg, who lives in the Theater District.
“We wake up with this problem. We go to bed with this problem. I want a little more sympathy and planning and thought process,” said Seong Shin, a resident of the Triangle neighborhood near Sixth Avenue and St. Helens, where the first rogue crosswalk sprang up.
At the end of the hour, City Manager T.C. Broadnax told the group he heard them loud and clear.
“This shows pent-up frustration. Things aren’t happening fast enough. You feel you haven’t been heard,” he said.
It’s no wonder, he said. Tacoma, like many cities, hasn’t invested nearly what it needed to maintain and upgrade infrastructure. It’s a problem decades in the making. People still must have patience, he said. Money, the little that there is, can’t be shifted overnight.
And cars still have a place on the road. “We sell a lot of cars in Tacoma,” he said. “It’s a big economic engine for us. We also are trying to graduate to being more bike friendly. You need a balance.”
Elizabeth Burris, neighborhood council president, said people who live downtown “aren’t feeling the love.”
City leaders “wanted me to live downtown. I don’t feel like we set the stage for people who actually live, work and do their thing downtown. That means walking,” she said.
Threatening to prosecute the painters also set the wrong tone, Burris said.
“I want to put a moratorium, a peace out on this. No more rogue painting of stuff. And no prosecution of anyone,” she said.
“We can agree to the first one,” Broadnax said.
The crowd murmured its disapproval.
“We don’t have any control over the first one,” downtown advocate Justin Mayfield said. “But you do the second.”
Mayfield is referring to Broadnax’s announcement in early June that the painters would be prosecuted. While Broadnax made the announcement on behalf of the city, decisions about what charges to file rest with police and prosecutors. Tacoma police have said charges could be a misdemeanor, depending on the level of damage, or a traffic citation. A detective is investigating.
In an interview after the forum, Broadnax said the investigation into who painted the streets continues. “I don’t decide who gets prosecuted,” he said.
On Thursday, city spokeswoman Gwen Schuler said Broadnax “has not declared the investigation into the road crosswalks a priority over other pending or potential investigations.”
Broadnax said Wednesday evening that he understands people’s frustration also stems from a “disconnect” between a wish list of projects and the city’s financial reality.
“I want to make those things marry up, so that the priorities become what we fund. That’s a process,” he said. “You can’t come to us with a 100,000-dollar problem and expect us to shift 100,000 dollars that day. Our budget isn’t that big.”