Why did it take forever to clean up the tagged MN Highway 55 sign?

This tag stayed on this highway sign for weeks, and getting rid of it was expensive.

This tag stayed on this highway sign for weeks, and getting rid of it was expensive. CBS

Twin Cities driving during construction season is awful enough. Roads close by the handful at a time, replaced by roundabout detours, or sometimes nothing at all.

Not making it any easier: an ambitious graffiti tagger who, a few weeks ago, completely covered the exit sign for Highway 55 East on I-35W south in flame orange spray paint. You could see it hanging overhead as you headed around and away from downtown Minneapolis, passing Bethlehem Baptist Church on your right.

The sign was nearly impossible to read through the layers of paint, especially if the person trying to discern it was traveling 55 miles an hour. With a can of paint or two, a tagger had managed to confuse —or at least inconvenience—thousands of drivers a day.

The exit sign didn’t reappear until about two weeks later, when Minnesota Department of Transportation workers took it down replaced it with a temporary sign. They only recently upgraded it to a new, permanent replacement.

What took them so long?

According to a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson, the agency gets anywhere between one and three reported taggings a day in the Twin Cities alone. That includes stop signs, bridges, posts, anything handled by the department of transportation. That number has been rising year over year, WCCO reports, from 583 reported taggings in 2014 to 874 last year.

These are all handled by a single crew of workers shared by Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sometimes, if a tag isn’t offensive or gang-related, it has to take a backseat to the countless others in the queue. MnDOT wouldn’t comment as to whether this sign in particular was inoffensive enough to chill for a while.

Cleaning off a stop sign is one thing. When an overhead highway sign gets tagged, it opens up a whole other can of worms.

First, MnDOT basically has to shut down traffic so workers can access the sign. They’re required to bring a certain number of trucks and caution equipment, to prevent a traffic worker getting hit by a car barreling toward what the driver hopes is Highway 55. As traffic grinds to a near standstill, the crew removes the 13-by-9-foot sign and carts it away.

Many highway signs still in use are pretty old—there’s a plan in the works for metro-wide replacement—and the enamel peels from any serious scrubbing. About half the time, they can’t be saved.

And that means MnDOT has to craft a whole new sign, which takes two to four weeks and costs about $4,000 … not to mention the added $1,000 to pay the workers for taking it down in the first place. All that money comes out of the maintenance fund, the same pool of money used for plowing roads.

The MnDOT spokesperson says these new signs are being fitted with a protective 3M product, a sort of film that makes them easier to clean, which could save the department a little money on replacement in the future.