Iowa college town pushes back to keep rainbow crosswalks


AMES, Iowa — This Iowa college town is pushing back against federal officials who say that rainbow crosswalks interfere with road safety measures.

The Des Moines Register reported the Ames city council will discuss a response to the request by the Federal Highway Administration to change the crossings to meet federal standards on Tuesday. According to the newspaper, the FHA told the city the display created dangerous conditions for pedestrians just two days after the unveiling.

This is despite the city promoting the crosswalk since the project started at the beginning of September.

“The white crosswalk markings allowed are tested and proven to be recognized as a legally marked crossing location for pedestrians,” FHA Assistant Division Administrator Mark Johnson wrote in a Sept. 5 letter to Ames City Manager Steve Schainker that was received by the Register. “Crosswalk art diminishes the contrast between the white lines and the pavement, potentially decreasing the effectiveness of the crosswalk markings and the safety of pedestrian traffic.” 

Ames City Attorney Mark Lambert told the newspaper that crosswalks at Douglas Avenue and Fifth Street are not on federal roads, they’re just city streets.

From the Register:

Administration spokeswoman Nancy Singer said that under federal law the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways applies to all highways and streets to promote safety and uniformity.  

“MUTCD requirements would apply even if federal funds were not used,” Singer said in an email.

On June 25, the City Council considered a staff report that laid out three plans for decorating the crosswalk in rainbow colors. The first would have painted large colorful blocks in the crosswalks. A second option would have made ran six color stripes parallel across all four crosswalks like a rainbow. 

The council picked the cheapest option, sets of 2-foot-by-6-foot bars.

“This alternative tries to mimic the high-visibility (international) style crosswalk,” the staff report said. 

An option to lay colored plastic tiles on the crosswalks would have cost about $12,000, but lasted about five years. Instead, the city opted for its own road crews to paint the crosswalks at a cost of about $4,000, even though the paint will only last about a year, according to the memo and Ames spokeswoman Susan Gwiasda. 

The same night the council approved the project. In his Sept. 5 letter, Johnson stated the city may be liable if pedestrian-vehicle accidents happen in the intersection.

As the city received bids, Lambert anticipated the federal government would push back. In an Aug. 6 memo to the council, Lambert said Iowa law gives pedestrians the right of way in both marked and unmarked crosswalks. In any event, straight white crosswalk lines would still surround the borders of the colored tiles. 

“Given the flexibility in crosswalk design allowed by the Iowa Code … there are arguments that creative crosswalks actually enhance pedestrian safety,” Lambert said in his letter. “My legal opinion is that the City has no greater risk of liability with the proposed inclusive crosswalk than a standard crosswalk.”

City attorney Lambert noted in a memo that the FHA hasn’t mandated that the city change the crosswalk and that the city does have the authority to approve it.



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