• Roadside homeless camps bring hazards for WSDOT workers

    By: Graham Johnson

    Updated:

    Most people see the homeless camps beside our freeways as they pass by.

    For Jim Buss, they're in his workplace.

    As an employee of the Washington State Department of Transportation, he needs to reach traffic signal cabinets for preventive maintenance.

    During a recent visit to South Seattle, he stopped at an intersection near I-5 with two panhandlers and a tent.

    Beneath an overpass, Buss pointed out a metal box someone had yanked down and pried open.

    Inside is a fiber optic line that lets engineers run the traffic signal remotely.

    "It's not out of service, but we're going to have to cut it, pull it back, replace that box and all the assembly," Buss said.

    At the next stop on South Dearborn Street, Buss parked beside a big pile of trash, which included old needles. 

    "I look everywhere I step," Buss said.

    This is the new reality for workers trying to maintain highways.

    "We've had employees poked by needles, we've had an employee attacked by an individual on the right of way. There are real hazards for our staff," said Dave McCormick, WSDOT's assistant regional administrator for maintenance.

    "It is routine to come in contact with human waste on the right of way," McCormick said. "Twenty years ago, I could walk the I-5 corridor in street shoes. There's no way I would walk the I-5 corridor in street shoes anymore."

    McCormick said biohazards are a particular concern for bridge inspectors, who often work in tight spaces.

    If the spot beneath a bridge is full of trash and hazards, a cleanup is needed first.

    "Even then, if it was you, you'd be concerned about being on your hands and knees as you're going underneath one of these structures," McCormick said.

    KIRO 7 filed a records request for complaints from WSDOT workers and received a lot of photos and emails, many from Pierce and Thurston counties.

    The signal superintendent of the Olympic region wrote of an "epidemic of homeless encampments" near signal cabinets, making it difficult for crews to access them.

    There are pictures of fences destroyed and wires cut in metal boxes.

    One photo of a splattering on a new signal cabinet in Tacoma had this description: "This is the type of gross and unsanitary things we come across on a daily basis. Along with needles, garbage, rats etc."
    Sometimes, the work is done at night.

    In Thurston County, a crew reported as many as a dozen people living near a signal box.

    One worker emailed: "It was a little uneasy with questionable characters glaring at us while working and having to watch your every step in the dark."

    "It really increases the stress level and the potential for danger both for our staff as well as anybody who may be camped along the right of way," McCormick said.

    And there's something else.

    Encounters with hazardous materials, and, sometimes, volatile people, is also affecting how our highways are maintained.

    "If we go out to do that guardrail job and people are camped adjacent to the guardrail then we have to cancel our work," McCormick said.

    How often does that happen?

    "It's fairly routine that we'll walk away from a project."

    Crews come back another time hoping people have left, or they wait for the area to be posted for no trespassing sign and a cleanup authorized and scheduled.

    "Which means we're wasting money, we're not getting maintenance done that we need to do," McCormick said.

    WSDOT officials say there's no estimate of the money or productivity lost because of encampments, but the agency spends $1 million every two years removing them.

    Preventive maintenance by workers like Jim Buss helps keep traffic flowing and lowers the odds of something in the traffic system suddenly breaking.

    When Buss encounters someone threatening, he follows his training to back off or leave.

    WSDOT workers are instructed to avoid conflict.

    When we visited, Buss was able to get his job done.

    But these days, on and around Washington's highways, there's no guarantee.


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