Seattle-area highway workers struggle to keep ahead of piles of trash

SEATTLE — There used to be an idea called highway beautification.

The big concern was litter tossed from cars.

These days, around Seattle, we're a long way from that.

"Certainly in the last five or six years it's exploded," said Jim McBride, a maintenance supervisor with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

On a recent day, one of his crews cleared garbage from beneath a homeless camp beside the on-ramp to I-90 from Rainier Avenue.

"It's thankless work for them and everything they deal with," said Eddie O'Hara who lives in a tent in another location.

He looked over the layers upon layers of trash.

"Yeah you're going to have that," O'Hara said. "Maybe thirty percent of the people who come through here are responsible for that. A lot of people frown on it, it's not a good thing."

On the day KIRO 7 visited, state crews hauled away six tons of trash.

Incredibly, state officials say workers cleaned up the same place seven weeks earlier.

"As fast as we clean it up and we have it looking good, it comes back to us in piles and piles," said McBride, who detailed how cleanup work is draining money meant for things like fixing potholes and guardrails.

McBride mentioned the two-year statewide budget.

"About three million got diverted to doing homeless cleanup," he said.

Highway crews haul off trash and also work with the city to close active camps in sweeps where people are offered services.

In roughly the last half of 2019, the state did 101 camp cleanups, 91 of them in Seattle.

"The problem is not getting any better. I don't think anybody would argue that point and we're spending a lot more time trying to be proactive," McBride.

There's also a push to clean up graffiti.

The state is getting 125 reports every month.

"It's gotten worse, it's gotten worse," said Tim Ditch, the WSDOT bridge maintenance supervisor who oversees the graffiti team.

Beyond the crews who clean up tags and trash, more workers are affected as they try to do other roadside jobs.

It's not uncommon to see used needles in the right-of-way in places workers need to access for maintenance.

In complaints filed with the state last year, WSDOT workers reported encountering hazardous conditions and volatile people.

The state just spent $300,000 on fences at the I-90 and I-5 interchange, hoping to keep people out.

McBride, who works at WSDOT, is under no illusions it will work.

"They get broke into pretty quickly depending how visible they are," he said.

McBride says highway workers used to feel invested in keeping roadsides clean.

"It was really in years past a pride thing, I take better care of my roadway than others in the state," he said.

Now, all they can do is try to keep ahead of the trash.

“I never dreamed we would be hauling away tons and tons of trash from people just dumping it on the roadway.”