Federal officials yield on the costly replacement of signs

September 8th, 2011    Author: Administrator    Filed Under: Opinion

Jean Schmidt

I’ve been working since March to put the brakes on an unfunded federal mandate that would force communities to replace many signs along public roads by 2015.

Other signs, including those for street names, would have to be replaced by 2018.

On Aug. 30, the U.S. Department of Transportation signaled it would heed warnings from me and others to slow down.

The goal is to install signs with greater reflective surfaces and larger letters, which would make them more visible and easier to read. That could improve safety because drivers wouldn’t have to take their eyes off the road for as long. I like the idea, but replacing existing signs before they wear out could be extremely expensive for some communities.

For example, replacing all street signs in unincorporated areas of Warren County could cost more than $1 million, according to a 2010 study by the county engineer’s office. That’s the estimate for materials alone. It could cost more than $1.7 million when factoring in labor.

Before becoming a member of Congress, I was a state representative and also served 11 years as a trustee in Clermont County’s Miami Township. So, I know how frustrating it can be for local officials who must cope with expensive regulations imposed by the federal government.

I have been working with the Ohio Township Association – which has more than 5,200 members, including trustees and fiscal officers from Ohio’s 1,308 townships – to try to resolve the matter in a way that won’t impose undue financial burdens on localities.

As a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, I have been addressing this issue in the upcoming Surface Transportation Bill.

I also shared my concerns with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in a June 2 letter. I was joined in signing the letter by two fellow members of Congress, Rep. Tim Holden of Pennsylvania and Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Bainbridge Township in Geauga County, Ohio.

We all want our roads to be as safe as possible, but the timelines for new signs could leave little money to maintain roads. And non-compliance by localities could result in a loss of federal funds and increased tort liability.

On Aug. 30, the Federal Highway Administration issued a notice of proposed amendments to eliminate 46 of the deadlines regarding sign upgrades. (The Department of Transportation plans to retain 12 deadlines for sign upgrades deemed critical to public safety, including “Stop” or “Yield” signs at railroad crossings that lack automatic gates or flashing lights.)

“A specific deadline for replacing street signs makes no sense and would have cost communities across America millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses,” Secretary LaHood said. “After speaking with local and state officials across the country, we are proposing to eliminate these burdensome regulations. It’s just plain common sense.”

I’m not surprised that Secretary LaHood reached this decision. Before he became head of the Department of Transportation, he served with me in Congress – and he was always fair and responsible in weighing considerations.

Budgets of governments at all levels are already facing tremendous pressures. The Department of Transportation did the right thing in listening to all those squeaky wheels calling for elimination of most of the deadlines for this unfunded mandate.

Jean Schmidt is the U.S. Congresswoman serving Ohio’s Second District.

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