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Drones to tackle growing graffiti problem along Washington state highways

Drones are cleaning up the highways in Washington state thanks to a recent bill looking to find new ways to remove spray paint from road signs, walls and bridges. Graffiti is illegal and cleaning it puts people in danger and costs taxpayers thousands of dollars annually. House Bill 1989 allows funds to develop a graffiti abatement and reduction pilot program to use drone technology to paint over existing graffiti and test new methods and systems to identify people responsible for the illegal graffiti. On March 20, Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Barkis, into law. According to the Washington State Standard, the proposal passed 96-1 in the House and 38-11 in the Senate before Gov. Inslee signed the bill into law. "This legislation is a testament to our commitment as lawmakers to restoring the dignity of our public infrastructure and ensuring Washington remains a place of pride for all its residents," Barkis said. "I am confident this pilot program will make significant strides in combating graffiti vandalism and reestablishing a culture of respect for our shared spaces."Photo of graffiti from WSDOT The program will be overseen by the Washington Department of Transportation and includes field testing spray drone technology to cover up graffiti, the utilization of WSDOT-owned cameras to identify and deter perpetrators, and the prioritization of the Interstate 5 Puget Sound region from Tacoma to Seattle and the north Spokane corridor when deploying the new graffiti prevention techniques. WSDOT must submit a report to the Legislature by Dec. 1 on the progress of the program, including funding allocation, the effectiveness of identification methods and the results of spray drone testing. The pilot program will conclude on July 1, 2025. "The explosion of graffiti in our state has become a serious concern that demands an immediate and comprehensive response," Barkis said. "This bill acknowledges the frustration Washingtonians feel about graffiti on our roadways and sends a clear message that enough is enough. We cannot continue allowing the actions of a few to shape the narrative of our communities."Graffiti removal cost, from WSDOT According to the WSDOT, in the last two years maintenance teams have spent over$1.4 million on graffiti removal, and expect to pay more in the coming years. Graffiti vandalism is increasing along state roads, including newly completed bridges, overpasses, walls and structures. The crews cleaning the vandalism often use special equipment like trucks with lifts to reach high places, requiring traffic control or lane closure during the day. Overhead signs with graffiti can distract drivers and cover directions needed for traffic, requiring immediate removal or complete replacement. Those tagging signs like this have to crawl across the catwalk, endangering the lives of the vandals along with people passing underneath. The WSDOT said it recently replaced two overhead signs, removing the catwalk to prevent future tagging. Replacing signs like these takes time and money, costing tens of thousands of dollars with the required labor, equipment and materials.Before and after, from WSDOT WSDOT said some people shared they wish to use portions of the highway and other facilities for safe expression for graffiti artists, but the agency prioritizes the removal of graffiti that displays vulgar or obscene phrases. The agency said it has been evaluating the state's innovative artist-in-residence program and how it could help address safe-graffiti spaces. Drone technology can offer a safer and more effective solution for a growing problem in the state. As drones become a more prevalent feature of the national airspace, they will be used in more practical ways and to benefit society as a whole. Using drone technology to clean graffiti may be a tentative solution, but could offer a broader solution around the country in the long run. HB1989 will go into effect June 6 and the pilot program will last for one year.
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