Federal sign standards could be costly

Chisago County Sign Technician Lyning Peterson shows off the new, highly reflective signs the county is installing by comparing a new sign to an old one at the Chisago County Highway Department in Center City Dec. 13. The sign on the right has a visible sheen, which better reflects vehicle headlight shine than the old signs. Photo by Derrick Knutson

By Derrick Knutson—

Sign shine, everywhere some sign shine … well, there could be some more sheen on Minnesota road signs soon, due to a federal sign reflexivity program cities and counties might have to implement over the next seven years.

The aim of the program is to increase visibility of road signs at night, thus decreasing the amount of car crashes after sundown.

Approximately 42,000 people have been killed on roads across the nation in each of the past eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. While only one-quarter of all travel occurs at night, about half of the traffic fatalities occur during nighttime hours.

Local governments are required by the federal government to have a plan in place by Jan. 22 to address the required upgrades.

The compliance date for meeting the minimum reflixivity standards on regulatory, warning and ground-mounted guide signs is January 2015.

For overhead guide signs and street names signs, the compliance date is January 2018.

What’s the cost?

The potential financial impact of the program on cities and counties could be substantial by some estimates.

Based on a conservative estimate, state and local municipalities will be forced to spend at least $37.5 million over the next ten years to meet the current federal mandate on sign brightness.

However, some local governments, like Chisago County and North Branch, are ahead of the curve in regards to the mandate because they’ve been updating their signs over the past several years.

“We’ve been systematically replacing signs over the past 10 years,” Chisago County Public Works Director Joe Triplett said.

North Branch Public Works Director Shawn Williams said his city has implemented a similar practice.

County administrator Bruce Messelt estimated it could cost as much as $700,000 to upgrade all of the county’s 8,000-plus signs by 2018.

But that number actually isn’t too far off what it costs the county to replace its signs under its current program.

Triplett estimated the county spends just under $100,000 a year fixing and replacing road signs.

He added the true cost of the program wouldn’t be known until local governments start the replacement process.

Cravaack seeks to repeal ‘unfunded mandate’

Williams said the sign upgrade program is an “unfunded federal mandate,” and many cities and counties might have a tough time paying for the required updates.

He noted Congressman Chip Cravaack, Mn-8, introduced legislation to nix the timetable for bringing signs up to current standards.

The bill, dubbed the “Rural County Mandate Relief Act,” was introduced in July and it would “eliminate the federal mandate that states and local municipalities must keep their road and street signs bright enough to meet federal government brightness standards, allowing them to decide when signs are replaced,” according to a press release from Cravaack’s office.

Currently, the bill sits in subcommittee and would need to make it through the U.S. House and Senate to become law.

Cravaack’s Press Secretary Mike Bars said that process could happen relatively quickly, or it could take quite some time.

The majority of legislation introduced doesn’t make it out of subcommittee, but the bill has the support of numerous Minnesota mayors and has two co-sponsors – legislators from North Carolina and Oklahoma.

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