County Forced to Comply with Costly Federal Mandate to Replace Road Signs

June 17, 2011
by: 
Dwayne Page
Kenny Edge holding new retroreflectivity road sign

A mandate calling on counties and states to replace existing road signs with new ones that offer better nighttime visibility could cost the state millions of dollars and DeKalb County tens of thousands of dollars, without any financial assistance from the federal government.

Road Supervisor Kenny Edge told WJLE Friday that the old county signs currently cost the county $13.50 each while the new ones run $32.95 apiece. With at least three thousand or more county road name signs and traffic signs which will have to be replaced to meet this federal requirement within the next four to seven years, Edge said he has already started the process of replacing a few signs here and there as needed.

Kenny Edge from dwayne page on Vimeo.
Meanwhile U.S. Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander have introduced legislation to stop what they call this overreach by the federal government – commonly called an unfunded mandate – requiring local governments to replace road signs according to new visibility standards by arbitrary 2015 and 2018 deadlines. According to estimates from the Tennessee County Highway Officials Association, meeting the current compliance deadlines will cost local governments at least $50 million in Tennessee alone.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has updated federal rules governing minimum nighttime visibility standards (known as "retroreflectivity") for road signs. State and local governments must present plans for overhauling their old signs by January 22, 2012. Traffic safety signs, such as stop and yield signs, must be replaced by 2015, and all signs must be replaced by 2018.

The Corker-Alexander bill would waive the compliance dates and instead permit state and local governments to comply with the new standards when they replace signs at the end of their normal life cycle.

"Obviously, everyone wants our roads to be as safe as possible, but the arbitrary deadlines assigned by Washington amount to an unfunded mandate on local governments at a time when they can least afford it. Instead of asking local governments to shell out $50 million, it seems like a much more reasonable approach to replace road signs when they need to be replaced instead of an arbitrary deadline assigned by some Washington bureaucrat," Corker said.

"Here they go again, turning a big Washington idea about little road signs into another unfunded mandate, making state and local governments foot the bill," Alexander said.

Several Tennessee localities submitted public comments detailing the excessive compliance costs imposed by the proposed road sign rules.

On May 30, Governor Haslam signed a resolution, HJR 304, passed by the Tennessee General Assembly calling for Congress to fully fund the FHWA's mandate.

In a statement, the Tennessee County Highway Officials Association said, "It is financially impossible for Tennessee county governments to comply with this unfunded FHWA mandate. Tennessee county governments' inability to comply with the FHWA sign mandates indirectly exposes all units of local governments to potential litigation. One of the biggest concerns for county governments regarding program mandates is the threat of lawsuits for non-compliance."

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