By Micah J. Fleck
Richard Ankrom, an artist from Seattle, WA, has a sizable bone to pick with the California Department of Transportation (dubbed “Caltrans”). It’s a problem as deeply rooted over twenty years and literally as large as a freeway sign. His solution for it has irrevocably proven one thing to the locals of downtown L.A. that many pro-market activists have postulated for decades: government-funded road construction, like most other similarly funded ventures, is embarrassingly inefficient.
It all started in 1981 when Ankrom, at the time a college student in Orange County, missed an exit that he was certain he possibly couldn’t have that sent him onto the wrong freeway, ultimately getting lost completely. In great bewildered frustration, Ankrom could never quite let go of that memory – how had he managed to completely miss the sign for I-5 North? It was too large an exit to be totally unmarked, yet there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for finding it within the chaotic bifurcation of the merging L.A. interstate the artist and others had tried to navigate. Ankrom, still an out-of-towner, would remain baffled by the apparent mystery for nearly two decades. But then he made the most extraordinary discovery when passing through the same disorienting portion of L.A., by this point a functioning citizen of the city. Upon the familiar pale green of the boxy merge sign that had taunted him for years, there was clearly an absence – the elusive I-5 North prompt was absolutely nowhere to be found.
In an attempt to do a long-overdue public service, Richard Ankrom set to plotting his vigilante activism. The plan was simple in theory, but precarious in logistics – Ankrom would attempt to manually replicate an interstate sign that met all required dimensions and specifications, then install it upon the vacuous green of the freeway merge sign himself.
The determined artist took all the right steps, consulted the proper manuals and traffic control regulations, met the correct dimensions of the sign itself as suggested by his enemy, Caltrans, etc. – he played by the rules set by the incompetent rule makers themselves because there was no other way of success. In short, Ankrom played the system to his advantage, and in turn he successfully exposed it as the inefficient tax usurper that it truly is. He built the sign, and it matched all its counterparts perfectly.
On August 5th, 2001, after two decades of Caltrans neglecting to fix its own simple mistake, a passionate artist from out of state, with significantly less funds and resources, successfully altered the sign that had given freeway frequenters so much grief for years. He did it with a handful of his friends and under the cover of early morning, fearing all along that he would be arrested, but he also knew he had passed the point of no return.
And then, the most interesting thing of all occurred – Ankrom wasn’t arrested. Why? Because all his homework had protected him from detection. His sign was truly indistinguishable from all the others, and it only got taken down (nearly a full decade later) because of routine maintenance work. Upon the replacement sign’s erection, Caltrans themselves had finally added I-5 North to its edifice.
The artist from Seattle, once lost in the big city, had conquered it by fixing the errors of its own road construction branch – no tax dollars required. This type of public good is something Ankrom likes to call “guerrilla public service,” and this tradition continues to live on in the work of other non-government volunteers – one such example is the Efficient Passenger Project, whose mission is to finally clear the haze of the NYC subway system so that locals and tourists alike can actually gather where they need to go simply by reading the subway signs.
Sounds like something so simple our tax dollars should have taken care of it ages ago, yet here we are, that much poorer yet no closer to that efficient transit experience we’re promised in the process.
Who will build the roads? Anyone but the government would be a great start.