Jan 9, 2024 - News

Portland-area graffiti worsens with state budget woes

A photo of a highway with cars driving and graffiti along the median.

Graffiti on I-5 near the Lombard exit. Photo: Meira Gebel/Axios

Portland's graffiti buildup is on the agenda for the state's upcoming legislative session.

Driving the news: Lawmakers, who convene on Feb. 5, will decide whether to add $20 million to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) budget to scrub off graffiti from hotspots around town — one of the recommendations from Gov. Tina Kotek's downtown task force.

  • Graffiti along Portland's main arteries has only worsened since the agency ran out of dedicated funds to remove and prevent vandalism from the city's highways last summer.

Why it matters: Rampant graffiti is not only the bane of drivers who may miss their exit due to unreadable signs spray painted over — but also city officials (and residents) who see excessive tagging as contributing to Portland's battered reputation.

Of note: While the city of Portland has its own graffiti removal program — through which community organizations work with third-party contractors to field thousands of requests — ODOT is responsible for graffiti prevention along highway corridors.

State of play: Budgetary woes have plagued the state's transportation department for years, leading to a litany of stalled improvement projects.

  • Oregon's 38-cent-per-gallon gas tax makes up most of the agency's revenue, but fewer funds have been available as fuel-efficient and electric vehicles become more popular.
  • ODOT predicts it will have a $720 million budget deficit by 2027 if new sources of revenue are not identified.

Context: ODOT's $1.7 million graffiti removal budget tapped out last June, so the agency's crews only respond to instances of vandalism involving explicit or offensive graffiti after other daily maintenance tasks — like fixing potholes, installing guardrails and winterizing roads — are complete, Don Hamilton, a spokesperson for the bureau, told Axios.

What we're watching: If lawmakers OK Kotek's intended $20 million during the short legislative session that ends March 10, funds may not be immediately available for ODOT to use, as it would be a budget adjustment for the 2023-25 biennium, according to Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for the governor.

  • If the money comes through, ODOT plans to tackle litter and graffiti cleanup on I-84 from Portland to Troutdale, on I-5 from Portland to Clackamas County, on U.S. 26 from I-405 through Washington County and on Oregon 217, Hamilton said.

The bottom line: Expect more graffiti along Portland's freeways for the time being — and maybe after.

  • Until ODOT finds a revenue solution to fund its future operations, graffiti may remain a problem for not only Portland but for cities across the state.
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