Friday, December 20, 2019

Historic Highways: Old Alignment Routes and Why They're Needed

The popularity of Old Route 66 highlights that public interest exists in memorializing and identifying old alignments of major highways.  While U.S. 66 itself has been decommissioned for over 30 years, various state agencies, local agencies, and historic preservation committees have come together to post signs identifying the old alignments and marking the routing so that tourists can not only find the route, but even older alignments that were used at different points.  Unfortunately, this recognition of old routes with special route signage is unusual in much of the country, and it is not consistent in design making it more of a curiosity than an actual useful means of marking these former routes.  U.S. 66 gets special attention over other U.S. routes, but many other just as significant old highway alignments remain left behind.  In fact, a portion of Old U.S. 66 in California was recently signed as San Bernandino County Route 66, but shouldn't this have been signed as something that actually referenced its former function?  Why not actually signing it as OLD U.S. 66 with an "OLD" banner and U.S. route sign?  In some cases, the local government responsible might even act like the highway was never moved and still refer to the road as "HWY XX" on street name signs, adding to the confusion.  Quite a few old alignments still serve as highways, and they should be signed with appropriate highway signs that can be followed in a similar fashion.  Those driving these old routes would likely prefer to see them signed closer to how they remember it than one of the many styles like the one shown below.


Non-traditional signage for Old U.S. 66 in Kansas (Image from Google Street View)

As to most old alignments, it is often difficult to follow them.  This is because in most cases the state government has abandoned them, and signage is inconsistent or non-existent for these routes.  It does not matter that they are no longer the route: these roads had a long history carrying a particular highway number attracting businesses and even culture with it.  They still serve as an alternate route, and their recognition is beneficial to the communities that are located along these roads.  Shouldn't they be recognized in some way that not only helps preserve their history, but also helps in navigational purposes? 

It is interesting to note how many former highways are referred to by locals as "Old Highway/Route (number)" across the country.  Most of these roads identified as "OLD" routes are typically roads that were previously major highways that were by-passed years ago by wider roads, straighter roads, or faster roads (interstates, Appalachian Developmental Corridors, etc.).  Many of these "OLD" routes are very scenic compared to their modern equivalent.  Even if it has been 50 years since they were last a highway, the novelty of these old routes remains enshrined on street name signs along with a few reminders of its past such as an older style of guardrail, historic bridges in some areas, and in many cases older structures such as 1940's filling stations, early 20th century housing stock, old motels, old billboards, abandoned schools, quaint downtowns over 100 years old, and many other odd points of interest.  Relic road signage may also be left behind as well such as obsolete mileage signs.


The need for "OLD" route signage is on display here with this vulgar attempt by Roscommon County, Michigan.  (Image from Google Street View)





Another instance in Randolph County, AL, where an old route of US 431 is signed with a county route pentagon as "OLD 431".  (Image from Google Street View)


Unfortunately, it is also often these roads received a name that hides the former designation, but locals still refer to these roads as such creating confusion.  Picture roads called "Dayton Pike" or "Hilltop Road", which in both cases are actually Old U.S. 27.  The common thread, however, is that these old state and U.S. highways were often major arterial highways that were replaced by another route at some point.  While many old alignments are too short, too local, or too primitive to sign for navigational purposes, many more are not.  Usually, these are longer stretches ranging from 5-30 miles that parallel the newer highway by a longer distance.

Old alignments do not always refer to directly parallel routes.  It could also be a highway that was decommissioned with no nearby replacement, or it is a piece of older highway running through a community built up to the point that it was by-passed.  Often, other state highways that have to use part of the old alignment to connect to the current route use portions of the old alignments, but they do not always affect the connectivity of the old route since these are often lower volume farm-to-market routes that do not get any intersection adjustments.

The important thing to remember about an old alignment is that most of these roads are maintained by local governments and are either completely unsigned as a route or carry a wide variety of ambiguous local route numbers.  While parts are at times signed with a different state route number, a "BUSINESS" banner, or more rarely "ALT", the usual destiny for a highway left behind is a changeover to an unnumbered road with lower levels of maintenance than when it was previously a highly traveled road maintained by the state.  Signing "OLD" routes refers to these sections of old U.S. or major state route that are not numbered or in some cases signed as a county or secondary state route often with a generic number unrelated to the former highway usage such as KY 3001 for a part of Old U.S. 421 or CR 30A for Old U.S. 98 in Florida.  These numbers, if posted, are useless for those seeking to explore an old alignment of a highway, and they may not be recognized unless the motorist studied the maps beforehand or are able to identify some clue exists of its former usage such as abandoned pavement where a piece of road was closed when the old alignment was moved to connect to the new route.

OLD ALIGNMENTS AS STATE ROUTES

Old alignment signs can be used for either U.S. or state routes.  It is important to consider that U.S. routes do not exactly line up with arterials.  In fact, many National Highway System routes are assigned only as state routes, and some are even local roads.  Since many state routes are also major highways, posting old alignments with OLD route assemblies is perfectly sensible.  Often, these routes are still regularly known as "OLD HWY/RT. XX".  Examples include Old NC 49 near Asheboro, NC and Old GA 5 near Ellijay, GA.


Old GA 5 (the local name for the road) near Ellijay, GA has these plaques installed.  It was replaced with the road visible on the left in the 1980's.  Wouldn't it be more beneficial to actually identify the route with a proper route sign?  The meaning is the same, but the signage is better.  The re-design below shows a one-piece assembly on a 24" x 54" blank, but that is not required.

OLD ALIGNMENTS WITH NO REPLACEMENT

Some old alignment routes are not relocations, but simply the revocation of a former route.  While many of these are forgotten to time, this is not always the case.  Some former routes that are not major highways still get referred to by their old number: possibly due to the fact that the original route was very long.  It may be good in some rare cases to at least partially reference one of these old state routes that are unrelated to the current route if the public still recognizes the highway by its former route designation.  Examples of this include Old NC 105 and Old GA 108: both mountainous routes that were revoked with no nearby replacement although they both connect to or fall near to the current routing.  In most cases, this reference is only needed if there is no other county route signing program.  In the states that do, these former routes often tend to preserve the former route designation such as is the case in Florida or New York or they reassign the route to fit in with a special system of county highways (such as Wisconsin or New Jersey).  Since maps often still recognize these routes by their former number, a visual reference to the former routing would be very beneficial even if the road has not been owned by a state government in 30-40 years.  Unlike other former routes, though, signage may be limited to a text reference under the road name on W16-8 signs at junctions followed by a reassurance assembly with an actual "OLD" assembly with a special plaque underneath like "LOCAL MAINTENANCE" to indicate that it is no longer an active route, but this was its former route number.  Obviously, in most of these cases assigning an appropriate county route number might be beneficial over posting an "OLD" route, but in the many states county route signs are not used a visual reminder of its former life as a state route would be useful information: especially when many maps and directions still reference the former route number.


The image above shows how a reference marker works for low-importance "OLD" routes.  The former route sign with an "OLD" banner and a reference to the fact that it is owned by a county or municipality is posted where it junctions with an active state-owned (or primary state) route.  No other route signage is posted except these reference markers.


Along with the reference markers, intersection warning signage along the active routes should include a W16-8 sign that includes both the name of the road and the former state route designation listed below it.  Note that this signage is only used if the road is not otherwise signed as a county or secondary state route.

NEW SIGNAGE FOR OLD ROUTES

The problem with moving highways away from old alignments is that it leaves cities, towns, and communities behind.  While the change in traffic patterns is purposeful and unavoidable, creating a properly signed alternative when a highway is moved is preferable to dividing it up into different numbered and unnumbered routes.  It establishes a clear "scenic" or slower alternative where local businesses may still flourish: especially if the newer route is limited access.  A standard approach to signing old alignments should be adopted that involves using an "OLD" banner with the original route number sign posted in inverted colors.  The "OLD" banner and any other directional signage used should also be reversed so that the interstate banner designs are used except that black is used as the primary background color instead of blue.  The purpose of using black is not only to give the signs an "antique" appearance but also to make the signs readable, yet less noticeable or important than other routes at night.  If an "OLD" route is displayed with other route signs, it will stand out in the way that it provides the information while not getting confused with other active routes on display.


Note here how the contrasting colors are designed to alleviate confusion between the old route and the active route.  At night, the sign on the right will stand out more than the sign on the left.  In the day, the information displayed indicates two classes of roads even though both roads were historically the same route.  This road once had a state route number unrelated to its former history, and this designation would be far more beneficial for people looking to explore history and find local businesses along the old route since it is readily recognizable as such. (Image from Google Street View)

In states that use colored shields for state routes, state route signs in this case would be changed to black and white and/or an older state route design used.  The purpose of this is to sign the route without confusing the public into thinking it is a current route.  The design described gives an "antique" appearance, differentiates it from other routes, other signs, and it provides lower visibility at night so as to allow any other signs posted in conjunction with the "OLD" assembly to stand out.  Reversing the colors also allows the original route symbol (U.S./state) to be used while differentiating it from other U.S. and state routes.





In Tennessee, prior to 1986, all state routes were indicated with an inverted triangle.  Most old alignments were relocated prior to this changeover where major routes were given a different sign, so old alignment routes in Tennessee would be best suited to use inverted colors on what is now the state secondary route sign.  TN 42 was changed to TN 111 in the past 20 years, but the route includes lengthy old alignments that are still classified as collectors and still identified as "OLD HWY 42".  Using this sign would make the most sense, especially since functional classification is used to divided primary and secondary, and these roads would be secondary if still state controlled.


SIGNAGE IS AN IDENTIFIER, NOT AN OFFICIAL ROUTE

It is important to note that "OLD" routes are not actually routes at all.  They neither indicate maintenance nor ownership, and they are used to indicate a former alignment of an existing route, not an entirely separate route.  Instead, they identify with signage where a route USED to go.  In fact, "OLD" routes may follow part of existing routes for other highways meaning that fully signing them may cause confusion.  In addition, an "OLD" route fully signed may be problematic when coupled with existing "BUSINESS" routes.  For this reason, signage should be used sparingly in locations where signage along existing routes may cause confusion.  This is where trailblazer ("TO") signage would be best at the point where a business route overtakes the old route.  Signage for "OLD" routes would follow the following rules:

  1. It would not be signed along functionally local old alignments unless the old alignment passes through an incorporated town or clearly established unincorporated community (includes structures like post offices, schools, churches, businesses, etc.)
  2. It would be signed at junctions with state routes, former state routes, and federal-aid eligible roadways if the roadway is otherwise unsigned
    • If the roadway is signed or otherwise part of a state route, signs should generally not be posted at junctions
    • If the roadway is otherwise signed as a county or state number for a section of the old route, the "OLD" route signage should superimpose it and replace it so that, say, County Route 742 used for Old U.S. 46 would be signed instead as "OLD U.S. 46".
  3. Signage at junctions would not include a "JCT" (M2-1) sign (since it is not an actual route), but directional arrows should be used liberally to indicate approaching "OLD" routes or changes in alignment at intersections.
    • Remember that this signage is a substitution for textual guide signs where "JCT" signs are not typically used
  4. Directional banners (M3-1 through M3-4) should not be used unless the road is actually established as an official route or it is already known locally as "OLD HWY/ROUTE XX".
  5. All old alignment routes must include an "OLD" banner on top with white legend on black background.  It should be a separate banner and NOT part of the route shield itself.
  6. All route signs used should be white on black giving the appearance of inverted colors.
    • The inversion of colors makes the "OLD" sign contrast from other route signs
    • It also gives the appearance of antiquity appropriate for an old alignment
  7. When overlapped with other routes, it should include "TO" signs past the junction either to the next independent section of old alignment or to the current alignment of the route.
    • In one instance, Old U.S. 43 is broken by a section of State Route 12 where signs would be posted at each junction as "TO OLD U.S. 43".
    • In another instance, the old alignment of Old U.S. 31 is completely covered on the north end by a section of State Route 54 where signs would be posted from the junction as "TO U.S. 31" and a trailblazer for "TO OLD U.S. 31" would be posted where State Route 54 meets U.S. 31 from southbound U.S. 31.
  8. Signage would not be random for these routes.  They would be assigned based on eligibility and posted only after a review process through the state government although signage may be posted at key locations without a decree.

Despite these conditions above, there are cases where signing an "OLD" route as a route may be perfectly acceptable with junction signs and directional signs.  Inversely, there are cases where an OLD alignment may be technically eligible, but posting it would cause far too much confusion and should not be posted at all such as through a dense urban area or downtown area: especially if the original roadway is carved up in such a way that it does not properly connect.  It really should be handled on a case-by-case basis with an agreement made by all stakeholders involve: the state, local government, and any private stakeholders that privately finance signage.  The important thing is that signing an old route is supposed to AID motorists to or from a well-located and well-traveled older route.  If it causes too much confusion or is not suitable for through traffic, it probably should not be signed.  

WHERE "OLD" ROUTES MAY NOT BE SIGNED WHERE THEY ARE OTHERWISE ARE POSTED

Since OLD routes would not usually be official routes, two places where it should not appear are on official state highway maps and freeway guide signs.  In the latter case, the old route signage would be best appearing as text on a separate sign, and on state maps it should not be shown as a route shield.  If used on freeway guide signs, the state or US shape will need an additional white outline so as to prevent the sign from appearing washed out.

ELIGIBILITY FOR "OLD" ROUTES

If every state and U.S. highway that ever existed in a state were signed, things could get very confusing in a hurry.  This means that a selection process must be limited based on a set of reasonable criteria:

  1. The old alignment route usually should be signed only if it was previously designated an arterial and/or federal-aid primary route before the route was moved to another route.
    • Note that this refers to continuous signage with directional arrows, not reference markers indicating the beginning of a lower importance old alignment.
    • Exceptions should be granted if the former state route designation on a less important road is still recognized as such (e.g. the road is named OLD HWY XX)
  2. An old alignment of an old alignment cannot be posted with route signs (e.g. OLD, OLD), but text-based signs may be used with dates.  
  3. The roadway must currently be eligible for federal-aid (rural major collector/arterial) OR serve as a local business loop through a town or defined unincorporated community (see previous rule #1 for signage)
  4. Priority is given to former U.S. routes, although some major state routes should certainly be considered if they functioned in the same manner as U.S. routes.
  5. The old alignment was not substantially relocated after it was transferred to a local jurisdiction.
The last point is a pretty special case, and it doesn't happen often.  This is where the old alignment remains an important enough road that local authorities manage to substantially relocate the road away from its original course.  At this point, it is no longer an "OLD" route, but it is an entirely different road with no historical connection.  It is most likely to happen in urban areas where development requires moving the road and changing connections to the point that the authentic former route is over 50% lost.  A case-by-case basis will be needed to determine if using "OLD" signage on such a road would still be applicable.

WHO INSTALLS/MAINTAINS "OLD" ROUTES

The signage of "OLD" routes is bound to be a very low priority for local governments unless they already have an established route signing program.  While it is something that local governments COULD do, it is not a standardized practice at present.  In fact, some instances of old alignment signage do exist on a local level, but these tend to be more aimed at a historic aesthetic that is neither accurate nor does it actually function in any way to guide traffic.  In most cases, it involves posting a county route sign with the same route number such as County 61 in Minnesota along portions of Old U.S. 61 or the previous example of "Old U.S. 27" placed garishly in a county route pentagon in Michigan.  Instances like this prove that signing old alignment highways like they're still a highway is desirable even if they are not official bannered routes.



In Carlton County, MN, the former route of U.S. 61 (fully decommissioned) is signed as County Route 61.  Seeing that this is misleading for what was once a major highway, it is obvious how much better the signage below is when identifying the road as OLD U.S. 61.  Even better is that the Minnesota sign manual actually does have a standard plaque for OLD routes, and this is designed according to that manual.  It could still be labeled on the state map as County Road 61.  Obviously, this example also displays the typical deficiencies in locally-installed signage.

The best approach is to first develop a statewide or national standard for the signage.  Currently, the MUTCD does not disallow, but also does not allow official signage to carry any colors other than the standard black legend on white background.  States have found out the hard way, who attempted color-coded U.S. route signage in decades past, that at the very least it is a sure way to lose federal-aid money for signs and that they will have to replace each sign at their own expense if it does not meet those requirements.  If it is not encoded as a federal standard, then it should be adopted as a state standard with the prescribed design.  In some cases, states may also wish to use an older style that incorporates cutout shields, sometimes with the state name, that was used up until the early 70's.  If that style is used, it should still match modern dimensions (24" x 24" for 1-2 digits/30" x 24" for three digits) with a design based on the current California U.S. route design.  However, it should also have inverted colors so that the legend is white and the background is black.  Note that brown is sometimes used for BUSINESS, "SCENIC", and ALTERNATE routes, but brown is not recommended for OLD routes.  The brown color could be mistaken as any one of those or as an official route.

Funding for old route signage should be either public or private.  Interested groups that might want to finance old route signage should be allowed to do so as long as it meets state standards.  Otherwise, the states should finance the installation of these signs regardless of jurisdiction with maintenance by the local governments only if they can sign an affidavit indicating that they will maintain signage to those standards or lose funding/be required to remove signage.  Generally, the state should furnish these signs for the local governments, but if the local governments are responsible, they should either be required to purchase from suitable vendors or have the state provide a plottable file layout if the local agency makes its own sign.  Sign should also be on at least a 10-15 year replacement schedule.  It is not an all-inclusive program.  It should be incrementally installed during intersection improvements, guide sign projects, federal-aid safety projects, and on a case-by-case basis.  Preferably, the creation of a state-managed or federal guide sign program should be created that includes these as part of that program, and this would work much better if the installation and maintenance of these is centralized as much as possible.

"OLD" signage may also be applied to active state routes, if desired.  It can be used when an old alignment of a highway might otherwise be an unsigned route or secondary route.  It may also be used in place of the existing state route number, but it should NOT be superimposed onto an existing highway that is not designated just for that old alignment.  In other words, if SR 556 is assigned exclusively to part of Old US 40, then it can be signed as OLD U.S. 40, but if it turns off and only follows part of the route, then it would need to have both routes signed.  In this case, the "OLD" route would be both signed and maintained by the state.  In fact, "OLD" routes are designated regardless of jurisdiction as long as they do not affect the connectivity of any other routes that follow portions of that old alignment or cause confusion.

COLORS IN U.S. ROUTE SIGNS: HOW OLD ALIGNMENT SIGNS RELATE

This plan also presents a need to relax the rules of color-coding U.S. routes, but with some specific criteria.  Obviously, orange and yellow U.S. route signs like Florida once used are probably a bad idea, but that does not mean that color-coding is a bad idea.  At one point, several states used color-coding for U.S. highways before it was forbidden when Florida was forced to revert to standard colors in the 1980's.  Color-coding could also be found in D.C, Mississippi, Arizona, and possibly other states up until the 1970's.  While a rainbow of colors is not exactly a good idea, the requirements for white on green with street name signs were relaxed themselves meaning that this strict policy of black-on-white signage is neither realistically enforceable nor necessary.  This should also be the case with U.S. routes with the following color variants permitted with a recommended use for each:


  1. Black on white (Regular U.S. route)
  2. White on black (Former U.S. route)
    • Used for old alignments of U.S. routes only
  3. Blue on white/white on blue
    • Special U.S. route corridor such as Appalachian Developmental
    • Should generally only be used on expressway-grade highways in consideration for eventual development into an interstate highway
  4. Brown on white/white on brown (Historic Route)
    • May only be used for an official BUSINESS or ALTERNATE route
    • May be used in lieu of white on black for old routes ONLY if color variation is used for old alignment routes and not BUSINESS or ALTERNATE routes
  5. Green on white/white on green (Scenic Route, BUSINESS or ALTERNATE route
    • May be an unofficial route, but must be a state maintained road
    • Already used in Maryland and some parts of Georgia for BUSINESS routes
  6. Purple on white/white on purple (Toll Road)
    • Toll road signage tends to be purple, so this would add to the conspicuousness of the signage as a toll road
    • Few U.S. routes contain tolled portions

JUSTIFICATION FOR SIGNING OLD ROUTES

This blog has made quite clear that the drilling down of road responsibility of roadway signage to so many small local entities has been disastrous for roadway standards, and it has made thousands of miles of roads inaccessible to qualified traffic engineers who could help set policy, plan routes, streamline costs, and introduce concepts to improve navigation such as signing "OLD" routes.  This means that a program like this really should not be done randomly.  It should be introduced as a state or regional program with dedicated funding, clearly written standards, and routes planned accordingly.  States who follow these guidelines should also make sure that signs are both maintained and maintained correctly meaning that a traditional home rule approach to signage must be suspended for this to work.  While they are not officially routes, in many cases the "OLD" routes would be used as signage in place of generic county or state route designations.  

While this concept provides a means of preserving history, it also creates an economic benefit by properly identifying by-passed sections of major highways not otherwise eligible for "BUSINESS" or "ALT" designations in hopes of attracting tourism and supporting local businesses along the old highway alignments.  Additionally, it creates the added benefit of clearing up confusion about where old alignments are: especially when the road name or route number is different from "OLD HIGHWAY XX".  It is not a particular costly strategy considering that these signs can be added to existing assemblies at state junctions, and the signage is often more limited (no "JCT" (M2-1) or directional banners (EAST, etc.) posted along most of these routes.  There are also not many roads that would need this vs. a county farm-to-market route program meaning that it does not involve the assigning of far more routes on unnumbered roads: perfect for states that do not post route signs on local roads and streets. 

While other priorities do need to be considered to improve signage on state and local roads across the country, incorporating this plan will be widely beneficial to the public.  In addition, perhaps a successful strategy of cooperation in installing and maintaining "OLD" route signs along with any needed guide or other signs might demonstrate to state and local agencies that an overall cooperative strategy might be best.  Assigning old alignments is likely to be met with broad public approval: both for the historic novelty and the assistance in navigation.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Dangerous Route in Need of An Alternative: US 129 from Ranger, NC to Maryville, TN

U.S. 129 has reached mythical status for mulleted middle-aged men in Harley's and younger guys in sports bikes shooting the 318 hairpin turns between Robbinsville, NC and Knoxville, TN, but it is a very poor location for a U.S. highway.  A quick Google search, in fact, does not even remotely recommend that U.S. 129 traffic even use that way at all to reach Maryville, TN en route to Knoxville from where it joins U.S. 64 in Ranger, NC.  Nonetheless, the highway that is popularly known as "The Tail of the Dragon" became enough of an issue that a proposal surfaced in the early 2000's to tear it all up for an interstate, I-3.  The interstate proposal was so unpopular that it basically got canceled, but that does not mean a better route is needed: just not there.


Seemingly endless hairpin curves in steep terrain greet drivers of U.S. 129 between Tapoco, NC and Chilhowee Lake in Tennessee.  While it provides unparalleled thrills for motorcycles, it is not such a thrill for through traffic.  Trucks are advised against using this route, and it is mostly useless as a through route for all but tourists and residents of Graham County, NC.  Note here in this image that the road is starting to slip toward Calderwood Lake.  The terrain here drops around 300'-400' on the right.  Photo from Google Street View.

The funny thing is, this is not truly a fixable highway.  It is located in very steep terrain with unstable and sulfuric Anakeesta rock.  It is also a dangerous passage along deceptively deep reservoirs holding back the Little Tennessee River, and it wiggles around very high mountains.  The damage building a modern four-lane road through there would cause would be incalculable.  This includes frequent landslides due to the massive cut and fill that would be required and the risk of poisoning a significant water source from the leeching of sulfuric compounds from the Anakeesta Rock.  In addition, hardly anybody wants any more interstates book-ending the Smokies: even the two-lane park road planned along Lake Fontana (Lake Shore Drive) was finally canceled a decade ago that was designed to replace a long-abandoned state highway (NC 288).  Google's simple map logarithm proves that this road should not even be U.S. 129 at all.  Politics yet again favored an unsuitable mountain crossing elevating a torturous mountain back road into a lengthy section of a major U.S. highway with a long and pointless overlap through Cherokee County, NC.  Lessons should have been learned from the costly disaster that I-40 was when it was slammed through Pigeon River Gorge, but the fix for this road is perfectly clear.


What Google thinks is that U.S. 129 is not the best way to Knoxville.  Even with the less than desirable conditions on TN 68, it is still a better and safer road than U.S. 129.  This is why perhaps U.S. 129 should be moved to the blue highlighted route shown.

Looking at this, it is obvious something needs to be done to change this: U.S. 129 needs to be moved.  For novelty purposes, keeping an alternate route of U.S. 129 along the existing road is an acceptable option.  Re-designating the entire route as U.S. 129 Alt from it current junction with U.S. 64/74 in Ranger, NC to its junction with U.S. 411 near Maryville is certainly an acceptable approach, and it keeps the U.S. 129 designation without marketing it to travelers as a major route.  Relegating it to a state highway is also an option.  While Tennessee can easily do this by revealing hidden TN 115, it is not so clear what to assign it in North Carolina since the original route number 108 as well as 115 are both accounted for elsewhere.  It is also bound to be unpopular due to the tourism that U.S. 129 on its current route attracts.  Perhaps the numbers should be switched so that NC 294 is reassigned to existing U.S. 129 north of U.S. 19/74 and Tennessee likewise renumbers TN 294 in Livingston to assign it instead to existing U.S. 129 so that it is all Highway 294 from U.S. 411 to U.S. 19/74.  I guess a public hearing should be conducted where they get to choose between NC/TN 294 and U.S. 129 Alt.

As to where the new U.S. 129 should go, the logical route is painfully obvious, and it is clearly marked in the map in light blue above.  This new route would be divided into the following segments:

  1. Overlap with U.S. 64/74 west from Ranger, NC to NC 294
  2. All of NC 294 from U.S. 64/74 to the Tennessee State Line
    • NC 294 would be decommissioned along its current route
    • The number 294 would be available to assign to swap with existing U.S. 129 north of U.S. 19/74 to the Tennessee State line
  3. Continuation of U.S. 129 onto TN 123 with 123 relegated to secret status from the state line to TN 68
    • A relocation of the junction of TN 68 and TN 123 is highly advised and is described further shortly
  4. The new route then turns onto and follows TN 68 from TN 123 to U.S. 411 (TN 33) in Madisonville
  5. U.S. 129 then overlaps U.S. 411 from TN 68 in Madisonville to the current junction of U.S. 129 (TN 115) southwest of Maryville.

GREATER NEEDS FOR TN 68 AND A RELOCATED US 129

TN 68 and NC 294 share a significant problem: while some spot upgrades have occurred over the years to streamline the hairpin turns caused by the ruggedness of the terrain, these are both steep and winding mountain roads through remote areas.  It won't be as simple as slapping a U.S. 129 shield on the new route: some improvements will have to be made.  One of those that is glaring is the junction of TN 68 and TN 123 with a peculiar movement favoring TN 123.  This movement requires TN 68 traffic at present to make a diagonal left turn, and if U.S. 129 was routed in from the opposite direction, it would force traffic to make a sharp right (or left southbound) to continue on what would be U.S. 129.  In fact, a closer look at Google has projected U.S. 129 traffic directed onto county-maintained Runion Road: a narrow, winding road that will need to be realigned and upgraded to highway standards to better align TN 68 to TN 123 just west of the state line.  A quick look at Runion Road reveals a paved cowpath that will have to be substantially rebuilt meaning that the reworking will take awhile.  This will drastically change the highways through the Turtletown community, if built.


The sharp switchback required to go from NC 294 to TN 68 north has resulted in Google routing through traffic onto an unsuitable county road known as Runion Road.  For U.S. 129 to go this way, Runion Road will need to be reconstructed and intersections realigned for it to work.


Here, Runion Road is straightened out with intersections realigned to make the new U.S. 129 the primary movement.  Because of this, it might make sense to also move TN 68 onto existing TN 123 to meet at the junction with current Runion Road.  While distance-wise it makes sense (and I would personally prefer it) to have TN 68 remain intact on the upper left, the reality is that the through movement is TN 123 and that it makes more sense to turn that section into a county road or short secondary route.  On the other hand, most of TN 123 would be decommissioned with exception to an unsigned portion between the relocated TN 68 and the state line.

The unfortunate thing about TN 68 is that somehow this highway has been ignored for substantial upgrades and is actually worthy of a study for a major relocation itself.  It is an incredibly scenic drive, and a side of me does not want to see it changed, but the fact is that this is the most suitable route to provide an inter-mountain connection compared to many other alternatives.  In fact, a realistic long-term prospect is to relocate I-75 onto this corridor through an interstate-grade road forking off of the current I-75 near Knoxville and following existing TN 68 south to meet the current U.S. 76/GA 515 west of Blue Ridge.  The existing GA 515 would then over a period of many years have intersections removed, interchanges constructed, and be upgraded to interstate standards including a new eastern by-pass of Ellijay and a shifting of the highway to create frontage roads so that the existing highway can become fully limited-access up until where the road is currently I-575.  I-575 would then revert into part of the new I-75.


The current route of I-75 steers traffic west/northwest.  While it has served its purpose well for many decades, it is increasingly congested and without a viable alternative.


Currently, the proposed route offers no time savings, and is only slightly shorter, but this is considering that on the Tennessee side, the road needs significant straightening and realignment.  That could cut as much as 15-20 miles off of the distance and provide a viable alternative if the Georgia side is upgraded to full freeway.  

In the short term, however, efforts should be made to straighten out the worst of the kinks.  While improvements for NC 294 are not as dire since significant investment has gone into upgrading the road, TN 68 is a different story.  Itself, TN 68 is 50 miles of hairpin turns between TN 123 (the Tennessee extension of NC 294) and the Tellico Valley (junction of TN 165 in Tellico Plains).  Large sections of road will either need to have the curves smoothed or the entire highway relocated to a better alignment.  In fact, the current condition of the road proves to be a major barrier between the Copper Basin (Copperhill) and Tennessee Valley.  On one hand, whatever improvements are made should be incorporated into a design that can be eventually upgraded to an interstate highway (super 2 or two lane on 4 lane right-of-way).  On the other hand, improvements should be minimal enough so that the existing road can remain in service as an alternate route when an interstate replacement is one day built.


Areas like the Hiwassee River crossing show that significant straightening of the road would greatly shorten the distance and increase the speed of the route.  On the right is a series of hairpin turns and switchbacks along the existing TN 68.  The proposed potential route on the left involve hill cuts and a high bridge over the Hiwassee River to straighten out this serpentine section.  Even if it not built to interstate standards or ever considered for a true APD corridor, simply relocating and straightening out the route as a two lane highway with passing lanes would greatly improve access to the area.  

A NEW APPALACHIAN DEVELOPMENTAL CORRIDOR

In order to finance construction of a new highway along TN 68 and GA 5 from Blue Ridge, GA to Madisonville, TN it is going to need a significant federal investment.  As it presently stands, funding for this corridor has been sparse at best.  It took 35 years just to even get the Copperhill/McCaysville By-Pass funded, and the project was scaled down from a four lane to a two lane!  Obviously, moving U.S. 129 will highlight the importance of the corridor further north, but initial improvements will mainly be to improve safety and connectivity.  Nonetheless, the delays in upgrading TN 68 pale in comparison to the delays in completing Corridor K, a very emotionally charged project that will likely only be built if public input is pretty much made non-existent.  Perhaps instead, funding can be steered to a corridor less emotionally charged and less scenic.  Corridor K travels through some of the most pristine country in the east as it traverses two deep gorges: Nantahala and Ocoee.  Ocoee Gorge is a significant treasure that people fear will be destroyed by construction of a new highway, but at present there is no suitable alternative.  Since GA 2 was canceled in the 1970's, and no other east-west links exist in the area, perhaps a high speed roadway running from the Georgia State Line to I-75 near Sweetwater would help alleviate some of these issues.  Think of how I-26 took pressure off of I-40 even though it goes in a more northerly direction and further east.  It is the same case with TN 68.


While not part of the U.S. 129 change, upgrades to TN 68 would overall be a very challenging project.  The area of Harbuck in particular is a squeeze point where either extensive cut and fill and disruption will be required in the Harbuck community or two tunnels will need to be constructed under Stansbury Mountain.  This is part of why building the road initially with only one carriageway (super 2) might be beneficial.  A tunnel would be half the cost if it's three lanes wide vs. two three lane wide tunnels.  Ideally, most of current TN 68 is kept intact as an alternate route if a new highway is constructed and kept on-system as a secondary state route.

Even if nothing like an interstate grade road is ever built, it would be a good idea to at least design an improved TN 68 that has the potential to become that.  Design it with right-of-way for a six lane highway with limited access on entirely new location with land set aside for future interchanges would be a start.  Considering that a potential of as much as three tunnels are needed, and significant cut-and-grade is needed, it is not a cheap project.  A significant investment was already made to rebuild TN 68 north of Tellico Plains, and this would simply be a continuation of that project giving a faster, more direct link between Tennessee's most geographically remote cities of Ducktown and Copperhill and the rest of Tennessee while providing a broader alternative to Knoxville.

HOW TO START THIS PROJECT

The initial steps to get the ball rolling for a small change leading to a big change is to recognize right away that U.S. 129 on its current route is not an acceptable route.  The steps of change are as follows:

  1. Reconstruct Runion Road into a new route for TN 68 that will be oriented to allow NC 294 to seamlessly transition into TN 68.
    • This will result in a relocation of TN 68 onto part of TN 123, resulting in the elimination of TN 123 except as a small hidden overlap with U.S. 129
    • Primary movement will be current TN 123 (east) to Runion Road on the south and TN 68 (north) to Runion Road on the north
  2. When this road project (approximately 1 mile long) is completed, relocate U.S. 129 onto this new route according to the previously described routing.
  3. Existing U.S. 129 will become either U.S. 129 Alt or downgraded to state routes depending on what both states decide.
  4. Curve realignment and the construction of truck/passing lanes from Turtletown to Tellico Plains should be conducted where practical to improve safety and speeds along the portion where U.S. 129 and TN 68 are co-signed.
  5. Once this project is completed, begin studies to construct an interstate-grade highway from U.S. 64/74 near Ducktown to U.S. 411 in Madisonville
    • This will be the first phase of a replacement for TN 68 
    • This does not involve U.S. 129 as much as it does TN 68 meaning that it will be a project exclusively in Tennessee
    • It may be constructed as a(n)
      • interstate-grade road (full freeway)
      • surface four lane expressway with ROW for future overpasses/interchanges and additional lanes (bridges should be constructed for six lanes)
      • super 2 (full freeway on a 2-3 lane undivided roadway)
      • surface two lane with interchanges built out for future expansion of remaining roadway
    • All designs should accommodate for an interstate-grade road containing six lanes meaning the super 2 should consist of three lanes with continuosly alternating passing lanes.
  6. When this project is completed, extend an interstate-grade road from U.S. 411 in Madisonville to I-75
    • This should be constructed to full interstate standards following TN 68 and include a high speed interchange with I-75 between Sweetwater and Farragut
    • It should be constructed with six lanes
    • It should be designed in a manner that allows large portions of Old TN 68 to remain on system as a secondary state route to serve the local communities of Coker Creek, Ironsburg, Farner, Turtletown, and Harbuck as well as the cities of Tellico Plains and Ducktown
    • It should include a realignment of Joe Brown Highway to meet the new road
  7. Georgia should begin upgrading existing GA 5/515 between Nelson and Blue Ridge to interstate standards by removing at-grade crossings and constructing interchanges
    • This will require relocation of portions of the highway to new alignment around built-up sections: especially in Ellijay and Blue Ridge
    • Existing ROW may have to be shifted to convert an existing carriageway into frontage roads and to reconnect old alignments into those frontage roads between Ellijay and Blue Ridge such as what currently exists in Cherry Log and Whitepath
    • While this is underway, a study for an interstate-grade road should commence between Blue Ridge and the Tennessee State Line following GA 5
    • The upgrades should include a widening of the existing four lane roadway to six lanes and realignment of substandard grades and curves where possible
  8. Long-term, Tennessee should complete the upgrade of the relocated TN 68 to interstate standards between the Georgia State Line and U.S. 411 in Tellico Plains to full interstate standards.
    • When completed, a six-lane interstate will connect from the end of I-575 in Nelson to I-75 west of Knoxville
    • I-75 will be relocated to this route with existing I-75 reassigned as extensions of I-24 and I-81

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF THIS PLAN

What will start out as a simple highway shuffle will over time turn into a long and expensive road project, but it is necessary to create a more direct route between Knoxville and Atlanta while subsequently placing U.S. 129 onto a route more suitable for through traffic.  The major disadvantage of this plan is that it will introduce traffic and development into a scenic and remote area, but this area also suffers from a high level of poverty and very poor access.  It will also cut through mountains destroying the "wild" feel of the area, but this is no different than many projects underway in parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The benefit will be is that it will take the focus off of the more pristine areas further east along the existing U.S. 129 allowing it to be conserved for tourism and natural beauty while the less beautiful TN 68 corridor will function as a better route through the mountains than the current route involving U.S. 23, 74 and I-26 from Atlanta that is not designed to handle major interstate traffic and is becoming a worsening choke point through Asheville.  It will also provide substantial economic benefits to East Tennessee that are currently not offered due to a lack of an adequate north-south link.  No other route is suitable.  Any other option is long and dangerous with sharp curves through high mountains.  It is not something that will be completed for many years.  It will likely take as much as 30 years to study and build, so for that reason it is a good idea to start small and start now.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Guide Sign Issues: The GPS Debate and New Strategies To Correct Guide Sign Deficiencies

It seems that a tremendous misunderstanding has happened in what the purpose of guide signs are.  For one, they are not just there as a poor man's GPS.  They are designed to promote a road: to indicate clearly to the public what is the best route to a location regardless of the many options available.  This promotion is not just important for a guidance standpoint.  Cities and towns stand to gain or lose business by their presence on a directional sign, and not having any signage at all can be a safety issue: especially if the only option to a point of interest is a hazardous road with no safe place to turn around.  Finding your way around is a split second decision if you do not know the area.  Thus, the need for these signs has not passed.


Traveling along US 411 in Alabama, a junction with Cherokee CR 29 lacks the first sign you see here.  Once a state route, these two communities along CR 29 have dried up in recent years helped along by the lack of through traffic.  Perhaps if this road were promoted as not only a shortcut to Piedmont, but also these other communities shown here it would better distribute traffic, increase business along the road, and allow a major county highway to serve its intended highway purpose.  However, the sign you see here is considerably large at 7.5' x 3.5' thus a cost that is difficult to factor into a normal budget. 

Guide signs (directions, distance and route signs) have taken a back seat in recent years as federal funding has been made widely available only for warning and regulatory signs while states have viewed guide signs as less important than in the past due to GPS systems that are now easily available.  While they may be partially right, the concept of guide signs is to define routes, not just to show drivers how to get somewhere.  Defining a route means that an expert (engineer or technician) has determined the best way to go based on:

  • Road quality (width, pavement, geometry)
  • Road conditions (speed limits, signals, curves)
    • Some roadways are unsuitable, because they lack a signal in a high traffic area making left turns more hazardous than a longer way
  • Roadway classification (arterial, collector)
    • Most functionally local roads do not reach any cities or towns and do not justify signage
    • Exceptions exist for posting guide signs on a functionally local roads where it involves towns/unincorporated communities, points of interest, or alternate routes when the primary routing it substandard
  • Obstacles (weight limits, height limits, pedestrian traffic, business districts, residential areas)
  • Shortest and best route (not always based on state routes)
  • Roadway designation (guide signs line up with route designation)
  • Combination of roads (single route has overlaps with other major roads or highways) 
    • Note that "route" refers to both numbered and unnumbered routes based on destinations

GPS cannot always determine those conditions.  GPS looks at lines on a map and chooses a way based on distance.  Although items on the list can be programmed in, they are not always indicative of conditions in the field.  Here are some things to remember about GPS before deciding that all the guide signs should just be removed:

  1. GPS is not always correct
  2. GPS has led large trucks down roads with unsuitable conditions including:
    • Substandard bridges that collapsed under the weight of the truck
    • Low overpasses that caused trucks to hit the bridge and get stuck
    • Roads that are too narrow with too sharp of curves for trucks to navigate where trucks got stuck or wrecked
  3. GPS has led cars to roads that were:
    • Unpaved
    • Ended in water such as a boat ramp, ford or canal
    • Came to a dead end when the map showed the road as connecting
    • The road did not actually exist
  4. GPS looks for the shortest route, which is not always the most suitable route.  It leads traffic onto roads that were never designed for through traffic and are not funded at a level to handle high traffic volumes.
  5. GPS is not a substitute for posting information that should be readily available to the roadway users
  6. Most of all, GPS serves as a distraction to drivers who should be focusing on the road itself.
    • Attempting to navigate GPS maps because a necessary directional guide sign or route sign is not available is not acceptable and leads to distracted driving, thus accidents
    • Distracted driving is already a crisis in this country, and it is made worse when drivers are looking at their GPS for directions in hazardous conditions

Virginia clearly posts truck warnings or restrictions ahead of the condition.  Note the "GPS Routing Is Not Advised" plaques that prove that trucks have ignored these conditions before showing the flaws of GPS.

Seeing that this is true, it is NOT a valid argument to call guide signs outmoded because of GPS.  Guide signs are there to define routes according to the list above.  That means either highways or the BEST route to a city/town, nearest highway, park, historical site or public facility.  This includes not just state highways, but also local roads since all these factors regarding local roads are true:
  1. Local roads may actually be highways that are simply not maintained by the state
    • Nationally, most states maintain primarily roadways that are considered arterial routes of statewide importance
    • Collectors and many urban arterials are increasingly becoming the sole responsibility of local governments who are not structured in a way to manage higher classification roadways
    • This means many local roadways may actually carry highway traffic over long distances even though they are not the responsibility of the state DOT
  2. Landmarks, parks, recreation areas and other points of interest are often not located on the state highway system
    • Parks and facilities off-system often require many additional turns to reach.  These turns are not always signed, especially when the turn that is required is along a local road.
  3. Cities and towns are often located at a point just off of a state route or are not situated along a state route.  This is increasingly true as states continue to reduce their mileage.
    • Cities and towns are often found on old highway alignments and along major county roads in some cases as much as 10 miles from the nearest state highway
    • The trend of cities and towns removing highways through their core has resulted in poor guide signage through the cities as both states and counties rely on the municipality to define truck routes and destinations beyond the city and town itself
  4. The shortest and best route may actually be along a local road as opposed to a state road.  
    • The location of state routes is often politically motivated and may follow convoluted routes where a shorter, faster, and better constructed road may actually be locally-owned
    • Nonetheless, the state will typically avoid guiding traffic onto a local road due to the following reasons:
      • A lack of guide signs at a junction of two local roads where a turn is required to reach a destination
      • A lack of guide signs where a local highway approaches a state route.
      • Because the roadway itself is not maintained to suitable standards (inadequate traffic control or pavement markings)
      • Because the roadway has design characteristics not suitable to through traffic (this is the only justifiable reason).
  5. Local highways may go long distances before connecting to another state highway.  This is common in many western states where state control ratios are often less than 10% and distances between developed areas are further.

Here is an example of a state highway that does not provide the shortest nor best route.  While it is potentially a turnback candidate, the issue is that it is signed for Morganton from US 19/129 (and Blue Ridge sporadically).  Google clearly shows Loving Road as the shortest and best route.  Taking SR 325 is eight miles out of the way and taking the more convoluted northern route is 6 miles out of the way.  If guide signs were posted at two intersections on Loving Road at US 76/SR 515 and SR 325, it would provide the shortest and best route.  It has no truck prohibition, is eligible for federal-aid, and it serves as an example of why guide signs should be related to roadway function instead of jurisdiction.


Cane Creek Road in Pickett County, TN is an example of a highway under local control.  It becomes a state highway in Kentucky.  The sign on the right indicated the roadway's former federal-aid secondary number before TN eliminated federal-aid funding from rural county roads.

THE SIMPLE ANSWER AND WHY IT HAS NOT WORKED

The simple answer discussed in a prior post is that the state just takes over the responsibility of guide signs for local governments, but this has not been happening.  That involves the state assuming responsibility for posting and maintaining guide signs on all public roads regardless of ownership as a means of synchronizing state and local roadways so that guide signs are based on function and need instead of ownership.  That sounds good, but there are a number of problems with that:
  1. Not all states are doing a good job with their own guide sign program
    • Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine are examples of this: states that lack any specific specialization and have numerous deficient standards, missing signs and errors
  2. County routes, if they exist, are not based on a logical farm-to-market system because local home rule is used to define these roads in lieu of a centralized approach.
    • In these cases, the state was unwilling or unable to continue managing a farm-to-market program turning that responsibility over to the local governments leading to numerous inconsistencies (typical of county routes in Alabama, Oregon, and Colorado)
    • The state cannot realistically manage or be liable for a system with such a high level of inconsistencies, because it would show preference for participating vs. non-participating counties
    • Some counties oversign county routes while others do not sign enough routes (meaning every single county road is marked with a blue pentagon)
    • Others revoke the program entirely (in some cases the county routes exist on paper but not in the field)
    • Routes are inexplicably renumbered, change numbers, or disappear at county lines (CR 25 in one county becomes CR 1480 in the next, or CR 25 becomes a named road across a county line)
    • Routes are defined by ownership instead of function meaning that they are not signed upon entering city/town limits even though cities and towns in most states are part of a county (CR 65 becomes an unnumbered route upon entering a city even if the junction with the nearest state highway is only a mile away)
  3. States refuse to accept the liability of posting signs on roads that they do not own
    • In some cases home rule laws that were not well thought out are the blame, but in others the state simply wants no part in directly managing local affairs
    • Lack of communication means that problems that present a hazard to motorists are never addressed and that signage is inconsistent
    • Extremely incorrect or outdated information is often left on any remaining signs since most guide signs were installed by the state decades ago, and they are generally replaced "in kind" instead of reviewed for accuracy of information.
  4. States refuse to incur the additional expense and responsibility of installing and locating signs on roads that they are less familiar with.
    • Even if states do not manage any other function, it would be a minimal cost for the state to assist in guide sign installation and management, at least in rural areas
    • Since roadway classifications do not line up neatly with state control, this means that the system would function much more smoothly if they provided this service at no cost to local governments
  5. The decline in state funding and control in many states means that the economies of scale on a state level are poor.
    • This means fewer internal resources to manage guide sign planning and maintenance.
    • Because the state has to cut services, reduce staff, and outsource guide sign work to prisoners or contractors, the available oversight is not there to make sure that signs are designed correctly and placed in the field in a proper or consistent manner
    • As-is replacements are used instead of periodic review
    • Knock downs are neither located nor replaced
    • Sign clutter becomes a problem, because signs are added instead of grouped and planned properly
  6. States may indeed install guide signs on local roads, but then they would expect the local government to maintain these signs when the majority of local agencies lack the equipment or resources to effectively maintain these signs.
    • Very few local governments install directional and distance guide signs, trailblazers or any other route sign other than county routes (this is viewed an excessive expense)
    • Guide signs on former highways left over by the state are never replaced, updated or are simply removed
    • Other guide signs installed by local governments are inconsistent from county to county and typically do not comply with either state or federal standards.
    • Guide signs on a local level are typically not designed by people with any level of technical expertise to make sure that they are appropriate or correct
    • Guide signs are often the most expensive signs to produce requiring a higher level of technical expertise and materials not typically required for warning and regulatory signs such as unusual hardware, framing straps, z-bars, larger signposts, design challenges, and space is often limited on where to put the signs.
    • Signposts often must be of different lengths when terrain is uneven
  7. Some "guide signs" are actually special warning or regulatory signs.  These are special signs with similar design characteristics such as roadway prohibitions (e.g. "Notice: Candler Mountain Road Closed in Winter", "Trucks Prohibited on Maple St"), or W16-8a signs (longer street names can make these signs very large).
    • Local agencies often produce these signs too small to avoid the difficulties of producing and installing a larger, more legible sign

Guide signs are expensive and have more complicated planning than other signs.  This is the result of what happens when standards are not adequate.  In this instance, one sign for the state park would have sufficed, and the design of the green sign is sloppy and non-standard.  While this has most likely been removed, it demonstrates the need for a heavily centralized, specialized, and engineer-driven approach.


In this instance in Hughson, CA on CR J7, you see how wrong a guide sign can go even when one is properly planned but designed improperly.  This sign does not meet either MUTCD or CalTrans specifications for design even though the basic information is presented correctly.

In other words, blindly relying on the state alone more often than not means little to nothing is ever done.  A federal infusion is needed to highlight the problems and demonstrate the importance of this issue.  States DOT's should also make this a specific program to local governments usually with a PTOE hired to specifically manage the program and a process established to do so.  A local guide sign program should be coupled with state-owned guide signs so that the entire guide sign program is managed consistently on both levels of roads and projects should be grouped on both state and local roads to better manage material costs and coordinate signage.  Local agencies often do not recognize the problem, and state governments are not always structured in a way to mediate the problem.  Even when funding levels are adequate, it does not mean that either the state or local government has ever seriously considered the issue.  

A NEW STRATEGY: THREE OPTIONS

Across the country, only about 1/5 of the states have a road system that is centralized enough to adequately manage guide signs.  West Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Delaware appear to have the best program with high standards, frequent maintenance and consistent application both on highways and local roads.  The problem in West Virginia and Delaware is that both have the vast majority of their roads under state control: not typical in most of the country.  Iowa and Wisconsin are the notable exceptions, and it is related to a strong culture of local traffic engineering standards lacking in other states, but it is out of the ordinary.  Wisconsin also has an overlaying road system where the counties are contracted to maintain state routes resulting in greater state oversight of county activities.  Obviously centralization has a major advantage in regards of planning and maintenance of guide signs compared to states who do not.  States that transfer roads to the local government, on the other hand, have difficulty managing guide signs, especially when route signs change in a way that destinations become invalid over long distances.  When information is not reviewed and updated when routes change, the public learns that they cannot trust these signs to provide useful information.

The three strategies needed to fix this are:
  1. The creation of a federal guide sign program
  2. Specialization (including specific state programs)
  3. Privatization
The Federal Guide Sign Program (GuideWays)

First, it should be considered that few things have helped local governments more than the state application of the High Risk Rural Roads Program on a local level.  For decades, the concept of a traffic study or installation of safety improvements by anything but the local government on local roads was unheard of.  If the county or municipality could not afford to do it on their own, it just was not done.  More often than not, local priorities went to constructing new roads, replacing bridges and repaving roads leaving next to nothing for traffic control.  Once the stop signs were installed, speed limit signs put in place and street name signs put in there was nothing else left over.  Certainly that did not include money for traffic studies or replacing the faded out traffic striping.  While these conditions still exist, they are less frequent than they once were.



What is vs. what should be.  The actual image from Google Maps above shows a tornado-damaged guide sign that was already decades old not being maintained a the junction of US 278 and CR 19, a major county route connecting Centre and Jacksonville, AL.  Jacksonville isn't even mentioned on that sign, and most likely the guide sign dates to the 1970's as a means that the state used to provide additional guidance across county lines from where they actually maintained the road.  If properly planned today, this is what you would see at this intersection.  With no program or funding in place, fixes like this just do not happen anymore.

Even now, guide signs are still non-existent on local roadways, and that is because it never was good in the first place, and no funding is available on a state level for this work.  A new federal guide sign program could eliminate this problem.  The guide sign program takes the existing HRRRP effort and expands it to include a pool of resources just for guide signs.  However, unlike the High Risk Rural Roads program where specific roads are selected for renovation and money is never enough to address every deficient road in a county or municipality, this program would be different.  It would select a county (including all cities within) for a total renovation of guide signs.  These would include signs on state roads, county roads and streets in municipalities all within the same county.  How it would work is that:
  1. The state selects an engineering firm to study every road in the county.  The firm will review the following:
    • Needed guide signs on local roads including trailblazers, directional signs, distance signs
      • "TO" route assemblies are considered trailblazers
    • Boundary and waterway signs
      • This includes city limits, town limits, unincorporated communities/CDP boundaries, county boundaries and state boundaries
      • This includes crossings of lakes, rivers and streams
      • Unincorporated communities are just as important as cities and towns since many unincorporated communities form junctions of highways as well as destinations for many roadways.
    • Junction route assemblies and county route markers (if used) on local roads
      • This includes posting route and directional assemblies on major local roads approaching the junction of a state highway
      • This includes correcting and improving the information on county routes including adding directional banners, junction assemblies, cardinal directions and reassurance signs
    • Where recreational, informational and other guide signs of public interest are needed
      • This includes guidance to state parks, colleges, hospitals, government facilities, stream crossings, jurisdictional boundaries, unincorporated communities, recreation areas and other points of interest
    • Study guide signs on state roads to see if the information is up-to-date and correct
      • Guide signs may reflect destinations and distances on older routings that are no longer valid
      • Guide signs may direct traffic to destinations along county roads previously on the state highway system where guide signs may have been removed along that former highway
    • Integrate or correct guide signs where a conflict exists with state and local roads
      • If a county road or municipal street is adequately constructed as such and it is of adequate functional classification, it may be the preferable route to the more convoluted state route
      • Inquiry from local officials should be obtained if it is acceptable to post the shorter route, and if so should truck restrictions be posted
      • Review signs outside the county boundary that conflict with signs within the county.
      • Include signs in conflict outside of the county as part of the study and notify appropriate public officials of the problem
    • Determine if guide sign text and dimensions on state-owned and locally roads comply with the MUTCD and if the signs need to be larger with larger text
      • An example is using 6" text on an expressway-type road (such as an APD corridor) instead of the required 8" text
      • Substandard guide signs on surface state roads would also be corrected to better comply with the MUTCD in dimensions, fonts and design
    • Identify which signs need replacement, where corrective action is needed or where new signs need to be installed
      • This is all indicated in the traffic study, which identifies these issues in a single plan
    • Add, replace or correct other related warning signs around the study area that involve the intersection including the installation or replacement of the following:
      • W2-x signs, W3-x signs, or W1-10x signs coupled with W16-8/W16-8a signs where a roadway with guide signs lacks a posted route number
      • W1-7 signs at T-intersections (including any state-specific design for object markers posted with W1-7 signs)
      • Any other current or needed warning signs within the study area if the signs need to be replaced or installed; this is important, because guide signs need to be coordinated with all existing signs to facilitate proper spacing
  2. Once the study has been completed, the firm will file for a federal reimbursement along with a federal grant needed to cover the cost of installation of the new signs including correction of signs in conflict outside of county boundaries
    • The federal government will have already pre-approved the study
    • Funding will be needs-based, but may not exceed a budgeted amount
  3. The state will hire a contractor to produce the signs and another to install the signs within the bounds of the project area.
    • When completed, ownership of the signs will transfer to the legally-permitted agency
Specialization

In order for a guide sign program to be effective, this cannot be simply grouped in with other state or local matters.  A specific unit of state government must be in place whose only duty is to plan and design guide signs.  It may even be completely removed from the state DOT, and it could be part of a statewide roads unit.  The Statewide Contracting Plan details this, but essentially local government matters should have a central agency that they can use to provide specific, consolidated services that the state DOT does not want any part of.

The unit should: 
  1. Develop specific uniform standards (these should be included in standard drawings and in a state MUTCD supplement)
    • Framing strap/z-bar details
    • Route assembly details
    • Detailed designs of state-specific signs such as jurisdictional signage and route signs
    • A standard procedure for posting guide signs on both numbered and unnumbered routes
  2. Create templates for commonly used guide signs
  3. Make each sign according to state/federal specifications with an inspector available to reject errors
  4. Have their own shop where the signs are created in-house instead of assigned to contractors or state prison workers.
  5. Be managed by or staffed only by professional engineers with a PTOE certification and technicians with specific training who work for the PTOE  
All guide sign workers should be specially trained in state and federal standards, and they should not be assigned to any other duty to make sure that their sole focus is on guide signs.  However, they may assist in designing and producing any text-based custom sign such as the W16-8 advance street name sign.  Although the W16-8 sign is a warning sign, it functions like a guide sign.  In addition, local governments should be able to contract with this guide sign unit thus able to purchase signs or request supervision of their local guide sign program at the expense of the local government involved.

While most warning and regulatory signs may be purchased from contractors, guide signs require a higher level of technical expertise that means that they should always be produced in-house by employees who have the knowledge, interest and expertise to do the best job.  

Another option is regionalization for this purpose.  If a regional highway system is developed with resources comparable to state levels, the region can provide this service on their own with the state government contracted with the regional road system for installation and maintenance of guide signs as well as other traffic signs.

Privatization

If a state lacks the resources or interest in handling guide sign matters directly, the state should contract this responsibility to one or more private engineering firms who handle this on a day-to-day basis.  If this is privatized, the state government should encourage local governments to latch on to the program by paying into it.  The state will incur all engineering costs, so local governments will receive guide sign planning and maintenance from the private firm according to what they pay in with planning handled by the firm and installation/maintenance furnished by a subcontractor hired by the firm itself.  With a private approach, it will hopefully assure that professional standards will always be met and that changes can be made incrementally in the absence of a federal-aid program.  While many local governments may not participate, the shared costs will mean that overall costs for guide sign installation on local roads will be lower than if the county/municipality handles it on their own.    

TYPES OF GUIDE SIGNS INCLUDED

The previous post on this issue included a list of what the state alone should handle for local governments, but if the local governments were actively participating, they should also have the option to include the fabrication of street name signs (at their own expense).  Both state and local agencies should be able to rely on this unit for the fabrication of:
  1. All text-based guide signs (D1-x, D2-x, D3-x), including large freeway guide signs
  2. Special text-based signs (custom signs not found in the MUTCD)
  3. W16-8 advance street name signs (custom warning sign)
  4. Interstate, U.S., State, and County route markers (M1-1 through M1-6) and banners (M2-x through M6-x)
  5. Specific guide sign traffic studies
THE GOALS OF THIS PLAN

Guide signs as a whole need a very integrated strategy to be useful and effective.  Information on guide signs should be consistent based on route designation, road function and directional changes from endpoint to endpoint.  If a guide sign points you to Woodville yet additional turns are required to reach Woodville that are unsigned, it is a serious problem.  Not only will you not reach Woodville, but you may end up on an unsuitable road where you run out of gas or get a flat tire.  It is not acceptable for Woodville to not appear on any sign if additional turns are required at subsequent road junctions.  It means that it has misled drivers, is not effective, and poses a liability.  This means that taking a decentralized approach is a bad idea.  

In fact, the whole process of managing guide signs should be as centralized as possible: in fact more so than any other roadway function.  While it is possible to handle regulatory and warning signs effectively on a local level, this is not the case with guide signs.  Instead of being just one duty of the state's traffic control division or local highway department, guide signs should be their own separate statewide unit that handles this responsibility exclusively.  In order to do this, as many parties need to be involved as possible since this is not as everyday of an activity as putting up a stop sign.  Standards should be clearly written, local governments should be covered in the plan (and preferably helping to fund the unit) and guide sign workers should be specifically trained to handle this matter.  The more centralized this is, the lower the material costs will be allowing for better maintenance and higher standards.

In addition, a far more engineer-centered strategy is needed.  This means that a major study should be conducted on the ENTIRE road system in every county in every state: not just on the state roads or local roads.  This should be federally-funded as well with specific grants for that purpose.  Handled on a county level covering all levels of ownership from the state level to the town level, problems can be identified in a wide scope without worrying about smaller jurisdictions.