Clark Asks: Whose job is median maintenance?

It’s whomever owns the road, usually, but … it’s complicated

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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Who owns medians — those areas in the center of the roadways that are often planted with some sort of landscaping? By extension, whose job is it to make sure they don’t begin to resemble an abandoned lot?

Those were popular questions raised as part of our Clark Asks feature, where readers ask questions for reporters to dig into and answer.

Medians, shoulders, road verges or so-called curb strips, grassy sections between roads and sidewalks and gores (triangular pieces of land between a highway mainline and an onramp or offramp) are all elements of transportation rights of way.

When they’re well maintained, they can add a nice aesthetic to the local transportation infrastructure. But they can also be a real eyesore when the weeds take over or things start to turn brown.

Broadly speaking, whomever owns the road has responsibility for maintaining all its features. That means the city of Vancouver is responsible for the roads in town — generally everything south of Fourth Plain Boulevard, plus the areas around Vancouver Mall and up Andresen Road to Costco. The county is charged with maintaining most roads outside of those boundaries. The Washington State Department of Transportation takes care of Interstates 5 and 205 and state highways regardless of whether they’re in the city limits.

But on the ground level, where weeds need to be pulled and grass needs to be mowed, at the intersection of state, county, local jurisdictions and sometimes private responsibility, things can get tricky — even for people who think about those things for a living.

“It can be extremely confusing,” said Brian Potter, operations superintendent for the city of Vancouver. Potter said that after years of being on the job he’s “still trying to learn all the different pieces to rights of way and whose area of responsibility things are.”

A lot of that confusion, he said, happens downtown, where WSDOT and the city’s properties meet, such as around state Highway 14.

“Heading west on 14 … into downtown, as you drop down, you see a bunch of vegetation against a building and shoulder and trees and a plant strip. Then you see a fence and think that’s the logical divider (between the city and WSDOT), but it’s really not. There’s still areas of WSDOT responsibility,” he said.

To help the two entities keep things straight, they maintain what Potter described as an “extremely cryptic book that essentially gets into what the state has retained as the right of way and what they’ve turned back to the city.”

Lower priority

Regardless of ownership, the city, county and WSDOT all say maintaining road medians and shoulders is on their priority list, but the work falls below addressing roadway safety issues. They try to get to each spot at least once or twice a year but say can be tough to keep up, especially when everything grows and begins to dry out at the same time.

Budget constraints and limited staff mean there are only so many people to go out and do the work.

“We have a maintenance backlog,” WSDOT spokeswoman Tamara Greenwell said. “We get on vegetation management in the summer. But that was somewhat delayed this year because of the pothole and guardrail repair from this harsh winter.”

“We have a crew budgeted for that type of maintenance specifically,” said Scott Wilson, roads maintenance division manager for Clark County. He added that when vegetated areas are looking rough, his department wants to know about it. There’s a form on the county’s website for reporting an issue.

Vancouver is increasing its maintenance efforts this year.

“For about the past six years, up until this year, medians and right of way have been an absolute low priority for the city of Vancouver from a budget standpoint,” Potter said. In the lean years the city council prioritized spending on police and fire protection, but as the budget has improved, it’s begun to put more money into street maintenance.

“The public will start seeing more work in right of ways and medians than they have in the last four months,” he said.

Sometimes the weeds belong to the neighbors. Property owners might understand that they’re responsible for maintaining everything to the front sidewalk or curb, but they might forget about what’s beyond their backyards.

“That’s the biggest misconception for a lot of people,” Potter said. “You’re responsible for what’s behind your house out to the curb.”

And even then, Potter added, things can get tricky because there can be exceptions to the general rule.