SAN JOSE -- As San Jose officials report progress scrubbing graffiti from city neighborhoods, taggers have taken to freeways and rail trestles where their spray-painted scrawlings are more visible and harder to clean, leading many to feel the vandals are winning.
San Jose leaders and residents for the most part have praised the work of a graffiti removal contractor that replaced a city-run program in 2011. But the city and its contractor don't have authority to clean up the state-managed freeways and private railroads where a proliferation of graffiti remains visible to thousands of motorists passing by.
"To my neighbors, it looks like they're winning the war on graffiti, at least on the highways," Councilman Johnny Khamis said at a recent committee meeting on graffiti cleanup progress. "And that's where we enter our homes."
The City Council will consider progress in the graffiti war on Tuesday.
As in most urban areas, graffiti cleanup is a never-ending battle in San Jose. But it has become more politicized since San Jose outsourced graffiti cleanup to a private contractor a year and a half ago and the Police Department reassigned its two graffiti-control officers to patrol amid staffing shortages.
According to the city's parks department, which oversees the graffiti cleanup program, the switch to contractor Graffiti Protective Coatings of Los Angeles resulted in some turnover in city cleanup volunteers, but the overall number has held steady at about 3,600. But the volume of graffiti has subsided in neighborhoods, which city officials credit to GPC's quick cleanup response and a strategy of focusing first on hard-hit areas and carefully matching cleanup paint to background color to avoid the patchwork look of a regularly tagged surface, discouraging repeat tagging.
City officials say the monthly volume of graffiti cleaned up in the targeted areas over the last half of 2012 held at about 150,000 square feet, down from more than 200,000 square feet in the prior year. The contractor is paid by the square foot eradicated, and the city expects to save $600,000 on cleanup as graffiti volume subsides over the costs of the old city-run program.
Citywide, 87 percent of reported graffiti is cleaned up within 24 hours and 96 percent within 48 hours, San Jose officials said, attributing the remaining longer cleanups to areas that were difficult to access or required research to determine whether the city had authority to clean them.
And thanks to a "San Jose Clean" smartphone application that allows residents to report graffiti and get a response back from GPC when it's cleaned, showing the before and after results, resident satisfaction has soared, city officials said. Of those using the application, 93 percent reported the cleanup quality excellent and 92 percent rated response time excellent, according to city officials.
John Allen of the College Park neighborhood said he's been impressed by the new system.
"We report it with that app and within hours, it's cleaned up," Allen said. "I remember fighting this years and years ago. It's much better the way we've got it now. I hardly notice it anymore, at least in my neighborhood."
As for the highways and railroads, city officials said they have been working with Caltrans and Union Pacific Railroad to get the freeway signs and trestles cleaned up. But the process, they said, could take months, an answer that didn't sit well with council members.
"I'm a little disappointed that it's taken months for Caltrans to remove graffiti from the freeway signs," Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen said.
Councilman Kansen Chu asked city parks officials why San Jose doesn't just clean up the freeway signs and railroad trestles and send the bill to Caltrans and Union Pacific.
But city officials said they need the property owners' permission to access the structures, that city and contractor staff aren't trained to do so safely and that cleanup often requires traffic management on the freeway below.
Caltrans and Union Pacific representatives said they are coordinating a cleanup at the 13th Street rail trestle over Highway 101 for next month and that the railroad is repairing access barriers to prevent repeat tagging. But Caltrans and Union Pacific had no timeline for cleaning up other graffiti-tagged crossings, including trestles at Bird Street and Interstate 280 and Hamilton Avenue and I-880.
San Jose leaders said they'll press for quicker action.
"It's really an eyesore," Chu said. "The city's doing everything we can, but the state seems to ignore their responsibility."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
San Jose leaders report progress in cleaning graffiti from neighborhoods but have had difficulty getting Caltrans and Union Pacific Railroad to clean tagging from trestles and overpasses.