"The thought is common out there that we need to do something about this," says Jeff Severs, chief operating officer of Greater Spokane, Inc. He says that in a recent idea-gathering session to promote the economic prosperity of the region, the topic of weed control was a hot one.
"The unfortunate issue we have, given the strained budgets the city and county have, is that the voters would probably say that the first thing they want fixed are potholes," Severs says. The pedestrians and bicyclists of Spokane might just have to start carrying machetes, because Severs' analysis seems to be echoed by all the local agencies that have anything to do with weed control: It's a huge task competing for scarce funding.
Mayor Mary Verner agrees that the city's weed problem is a sore sight for eyes, especially those of visitors who are greeted by our virulent flora while exiting the freeway. "It makes it look like the city doesn't care," she says. "We try to hold private property owners accountable for their own weed control, but if we're spreading seeds from public property, then it just gets to be a vicious cycle."
Whose problem is it?
Weed control around I-90 and its off/on ramps is the responsibility of the Washington Department of Transportation. Its battle strategy is to keep a 2-foot "bare zone" along the shoulder of the highway, and outside that it sprays for broadleaf noxious weeds and tries to cultivate natural grasses that don't need water. It's a constant battle; noxious weeds pullulating along the corridor sometimes make their way into agricultural lands and cause havoc. "It's not just prettiness -- there's more to it than that," says DOT spokesman Al Gilson.
Stepping up to the task are three guys with one spraying rig and a pickup. "We don't really have enough people to keep both trucks going at the same time," says Russ Johnson, a superintendent with the DOT. Spraying is expensive, he says. "That's one of the first areas that seems to take a hit when we have a budgetary problem," he says. So they revert to mowing, but some areas are difficult or impossible to control that way.
"It all comes down to budgetary concerns," Gilson says. "If you look at a winter like we just had, I can tell you that we are severely behind budget," he says, adding that safety items are always prioritized. "If the choice is to repair a pothole or a guardrail or go pull weeds, we will of course go to the safety items first. We have to."
In the city, it's the responsibility of the property owner to deal with vegetation up to the curb, according to Mark Serbousek, director of the city's streets department. But, what about that fertile gray area where the pavement meets the curb? Technically, it's the city's. "Unfortunately, we don't have a weed crew anymore to do that kind of stuff," Serbousek says. The city used to have a tractor with a spray bar, he says, but it was retired in the early 1990s due to lack of funding.
"We hope the citizens will take a little pride in front of their property," he says. The city does mow where it can, he says, but it's hit and miss. "Right now we're trying to take care of potholes so people can drive down the road."