Politics & Government

Lexington’s rainbow crosswalk is a safety hazard, federal official says

Rainbow crosswalks celebrate diversity in Lexington

Crosswalks at the intersection of Limestone and Short Street were painted in rainbows colors in advance of the June 24th Pride Festival.
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Crosswalks at the intersection of Limestone and Short Street were painted in rainbows colors in advance of the June 24th Pride Festival.

The Federal Highway Administration wants Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to remove a rainbow-themed crosswalk in downtown Lexington that was installed to promote diversity, saying it poses a legal liability to the city.

“While we recognize in good faith your crosswalk art was well-intended for your community, we request that you take the necessary steps to remove the non-compliant crosswalk as soon as it is feasible,” wrote Thomas L. Nelson Jr., administrator for the Kentucky division of the Federal Highway Administration in Frankfort, in a two-page letter to Gray.

The crosswalk at the intersection of North Limestone and Short Street was painted in rainbow colors just before the June 25 Pride Festival. The Blue Grass Community Foundation sponsored the project through a grant from its Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund.

Lisa Adkins, president and chief executive officer of the foundation, said in June that the rainbow crosswalk was intended to celebrate the city’s rich diversity and improve safety at a busy intersection.

She said Wednesday that other cities in America have rainbow crosswalks and she has not heard of any concerns about them.

“Lexington prides itself as being an inclusive city,” Adkins said. “The crosswalk does that and adds to the downtown’s vibrancy.”

The project cost about $10,000 to $12,000, she said, of which the foundation paid about $5,000.

A spokesperson for Gray, who was the first openly gay candidate to seek statewide office in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016, said the mayor had no comment about the letter.

Nelson said in his Nov. 13 letter to Gray that rainbow-themed crosswalks and other forms of crosswalk art are not compliant with federal standards.

“Allowing a non-compliant pavement marking to remain in place presents a significant liability concern for LFUCG (Lexington Fayette Urban County Government) in the event of a pedestrian/vehicle collision,” Nelson wrote. “It also creates potential confusion for motorists, pedestrians and other jurisdictions who may see these markings and install similar crosswalk treatments in their cities.”

The white crosswalk markings allowed by federal regulations “are tested and proven to be recognized as a legally marked crossing location for pedestrians,” he wrote. “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.”

Nelson referred questions Wednesday to the FHA public affairs office in Washington, which did not immediately respond to questions about what the federal government would do if Lexington keeps the rainbow crossing and what the FHA is doing about rainbow crossings in several other U.S. cities.

“It surprises me that none of these issues exist in other parts of the country where they are doing the same thing,” said Josh Mers, chairman of Lexington Fairness, a nonprofit group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “It’s just another effort by this administration to try to push Lexington into a corner.”

It’s odd that transportation officials in other states haven’t raised similar concerns, said Mers, who is running next year for a state House seat in Fayette County.

“I know that Philadelphia has done them and Boston … and I think Atlanta has as well,” he said. “It keeps baffling me that the folks in Frankfort won’t let Lexington make its own decisions.”

In his letter, Nelson said the purpose of crosswalk art is to “draw the eye” of pedestrians and drivers, “in direct conflict with commanding the attention of drivers and motorists to minimize the risk of a collision.”

“With the emergence of self-driving vehicles beginning to appear on roadways in the nation, the need for clear and uniform pavement markings adds further importance,” he wrote.

Nelson said he not only wanted to notify the mayor of the non-compliance of the Lexington intersection, but “to ensure your awareness in the event crosswalk art projects may be in the planning stages for other locations.”

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics