Genoa Village Administrator Kevin Gladden is welcoming 2012 by putting together a new traffic sign maintenance and replacement policy. He’s not all that happy about it either.
“It’s another unfunded mandate,” Gladden said.
Of course, the village has replaced signs as needed through the years. But new federal laws are requiring all communities, public and private, to change the size, fonts and reflectivity of all traffic signs to make them easier to read. It even calls for street signs to be designed in a mixed font of upper and lowercase lettering because studies show all uppercase are harder to read, according to the Federal Highway Administration website.
The FHWA enacted the new requirements in 2008 for maintaining minimum level of retroreflectivity – the property of a traffic sign reflecting light back to a driver.
Gladden said he is ahead of the game, however, since the federal government relaxed its deadline regulations this summer. Originally, the law called for the policy to be in place by January 2012 with an accompanying budget and all signs to be replaced by January 2018.
Now, communities have two more years to create a policy. As for the sign replacement deadlines, they’ve been repealed after a public outcry. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced in late August that communities can switch the signs as they are worn out or damaged. Expecting communities to replace all the signs by the deadline would have created an unnecessary financial burden, LaHood reasoned.
Gladden and others still aren’t placated.
Still, “I am sure there are plenty of sign companies that are going to be happy about it,” Gladden said.
The basis for the upgrades is safety. The feds are particularly worried about making signs more reflective and easier to read for seniors on the road at night, according to the FHWA website. That requires a minimum standard for retroreflectivity. Most signs in the U.S. are made with retroreflective sheeting materials, which degrade over time and therefore have a limited life, according to the federal agency.
But others, such as Elmore Superintendent Buck Stoiber, believe the new regulations go too far. Besides municipalities, the law also requires roads on private property open to the public to follow the same standards. Some of those places include shopping centers, apartment complexes, universities and more.
“I can see the changes for the county and state roads where drivers are traveling in excess of 55 mph,” Stoiber said. “But it doesn’t seem right for our streets where the traffic speed is lower.”
He isn’t as far along in planning as his peer in Genoa but he is well aware these changes will take away money from other projects.
The changes will slowly eat at the budget when things are already tight, he said.
Evaluating those retroreflectivity standards can be costly task in itself to smaller communities, Gladden added.
“Some of these small municipalities are going to have trouble maintaining this type of program,” he added.
Village crews regularly check signs visually. Or sometimes, residents and others complain about a sign. If there is a problem, Gladden said, the sign is usually replaced within 48 hours.
The new law stipulates three ways to check the signs.
Crews can use an electronic gun called a retroreflectmeter to measure the sign retroreflectivity level. Or the village can purchase panels that show different reflective levels and are used to compare with a sign’s condition. The gun costs about $13,000 and the panels cost about $3,500 and need to be replaced periodically as they age, Gladden said.
And the final, least expensive option: Use a trained inspector.
“We can drive someone over the age of 60 around and have them check the signs at night to see if they can see them. No, I’m not kidding. That is what this is all about, aging drivers having trouble seeing the signs,” Gladden said. “But all those trips have to be documented.”
The village will likely purchase the panels.
They’ll also need to devise a cataloging system noting each sign’s location as well as documentation for the retroreflectivity checks. “That also takes time and effort,” Gladden said.
Dan McLargin, Lake Township road supervisor, said he is compiling an inventory of the signs in the township to prepare for a replacement program. He estimates 500-700 signs will be under the township’s responsibility when crews begin checking them in the spring for possible replacement.
He updated the township trustees at a recent meeting of the pending requirements and also plans to buy the panel kits.
Some overtime for township crews may be needed when the testing is done, McLargin said, but replacement of signs will be done during the day as part of their normal maintenance projects.
He also calls the new requirements an unfunded mandate, saying he looked for grant money to help cover costs but didn’t find much.
“There is nothing out there for just signs. If you hear of something let me know,” he joked.
News Editor Larry Limpf contributed to this story.