AOT won’t remove messages painted in highway right-of-way

After receiving guidance from governor’s office, Agency of Transportation officials say “We are in ever changing times…..these voices need to be heard.” Profane, grotesque, dangerous-to-traffic messaging still must be removed

By Guy Page

June 25, 2020 – the Vermont Agency of Transportation on June 19 instructed employees to not remove murals, signs or graffiti in the highway right-of-way unless profane, grotesque or dangerous to traffic, according to two Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) memos.

The action represents a reversal of the longstanding policy of removing or painting over graffiti and other messaging. The policy change was made after guidance from the governor’s office, and was in response to a complaint from a protester whose chalk-written messages on the VT-30 bridge in Jamaica were erased. One message said “No Justice, No Peace,” and the other listed names of black people killed by police and others. 

The existence of the two memos surfaced during Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Monday.. At Vermont Daily’s request, AOT spokesperson Amy Tatko provided the memos, which are printed below. 

On 1:57 pm Friday, June 19, Tatko emailed to AOT leaders:

“Connie [Englert, AOT General Manager of Highway Maintenance and Operations] reported to a handful of us this morning that some chalk messages (see photos) on the VT-30 bridge in Jamaica Village were cleaned up per standard VTrans practice. I then received a call from someone in Jamaica involved with putting up those messages who wished to learn why we had removed them. After discussions with the governor’s office, the policy is changed, effective immediately:

  • If the message is not profane or grotesque, leave it. If it is profane or grotesque, remove it.
  • If it’s on a sign and inhibiting roadway safety, remove it.
  • This would be a good time to exercise some discretion. These voices need to be heard. Use this as an opportunity to advance the discussion, rather than censoring it. 

“When I talked with the person in Jamaica, he told me that his group has already written the message in chalk again. I assured him that it would remain in place this time.”

An hour and a half later, AOT Chief Engineer Wayne Simonds emailed a follow-up message clarifying and expanding somewhat on Tatko’s email:

“First, I appreciate the work you have been doing to carry out previous guidance for the removal of unauthorized “murals” (graffiti, messages and tagging) and illegal signs.  You and your staff have done exactly what was required and asked.  However, we are in ever changing times and we must recognize that and adapt.  So effective immediately,  I ask you now to evaluate the content and situation of any mural or sign in the highway right of way before deciding to remove or paint over them. Guidance:

  • All signs that negatively affect roadway safety shall be removed regardless of content.
  • If a sign is not either profane, grotesque, advocates illegal activity or violence it should be allowed to remain.
  • Any mural or paint applied to a highway sign shall be removed regardless of content.

For murals painted on bridges and walls:

  • If a mural contains messages or images that are not either profane, grotesque, advocate illegal activity or violence it should be allowed to remain.  
  • All murals should be photographed prior to removal or painting over.
  • If you or your staff have any questions on content and are not sure whether a sign or mural should be removed or encounter a situation not contemplated in the guidance, please send a picture to the Chief Engineer’s Office for assistance.

The Jamaica messages were written in chalk, which is easily erasable and gets washed away with rain. However, the policy change goes beyond just permitting chalk. It specifically permits paint, presumably including permanent paint and spray paint.

Although the new policy seems to indicate that messages on other topics will receive the same lenience, Vermont Daily last night asked Tatko to clarify: “Does the new policy apply to other non-profane, etc. statements – such as Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Jesus Saves, Save the Whales, etc.?” As of yet no response has been received.

It is also not clear how this new policy complies with Vermont’s billboard law, which bans most messaging in the roadway and in the words of the Vermont Natural Resources Council “is a strong step in creating road corridors free of visual clutter.” 

Photo: Message in chalk removed by AOT workers on bridge on Rte. 30 in Jamaica – source: Vermont Agency of Transportation