The salmon murals on Main Street crosswalks that made waves in Haines recently will be gone sooner rather later. The Alaska Department of Transportation told the borough to either wash them off, or paint over them before the summer is over. The department cited safety concerns for axing the artwork.
The murals depict happy schools of salmon and mermaids swimming across the road. The borough commissioned local artist Merrick Bochart to paint five murals to the tune of around $1,500. Aside from a few who questioned the cost of the project, most locals and visitors have enjoyed the spruced-up street. But DOT says they pose a safety risk.
“They are unhappy with it, and so we’ll paint over them.” says Public Facilities Director Brad Ryan.
He says the mural removal will happen as part of scheduled maintenance sometime in the coming weeks.
“They weren’t so excited about it that it had to happen today. We might wait until after the weekend even.”
The paintings caused a stir a couple of weeks ago on social media when a Main Street business owner questioned the expense of the artwork.
“The price is really low and this is something that was arranged before me,” Ryan says. “I think it’s great.”
But at the end of the day, Main Street is a state right-of-way, so the borough has to follow those rules.
DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow says it’s not that the department doesn’t support public art. He says they looked into how to keep the mural, but there are federal regulations in place to maintain safety they have to followed. And it’s as simple as that.
“They’re federally-funded roads and due to federal funding rules, all crosswalks have to meet certain guidelines that make sure that they’re extremely visible to motorists and pedestrians,” Woodrow says. “Any type of additional markings doesn’t comply with national standards, and therefore could lead to accidents in the crosswalks and that’s something that we definitely don’t want to happen. Safety is always first.”
Woodrow says the issue is not about who is liable should something happen in the crosswalk, it’s just about safety.
“Anything that could distract a driver or make a pedestrian less visible is something that we want to avoid. There’s a reason that crosswalks are marked the way they are. They stand out on the pavement and they’re very visible to drivers and pedestrians, and because it’s a standard people are used to what they’re seeing so anything that deviates from that standard could potentially lead to an accident.”
Woodrow says DOT was contacted by the borough last fall with the idea of painting murals, but the conversation never progressed. He says if it had, they would have shut it down back then.
“We aren’t going to make them spend more than the cost of the paint to get rid of it, but there are different ways to get rid of it, and one of the options is to just paint over it with black paint.”
The mural on Beach Road, in front of the cruise ship dock, is not on a state right-of-way, so it’s safe.
Ryan says he’s disappointed with the decision to cover up the Main Street salmon, especially because the Haines School wanted to have the fish murals painted on crosswalks outside that building, on DOT roads. He says he understands why they put the kibosh on the artwork, but he would have thought they had “bigger fish to fry.”