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?
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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:
- 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.)
- 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".
- Remember that this signage is a substitution for textual guide signs where "JCT" signs are not typically used
- 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
- 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.
- 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)
WHO INSTALLS/MAINTAINS "OLD" ROUTES
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:
- Black on white (Regular U.S. route)
- White on black (Former U.S. route)
- Used for old alignments of U.S. routes only
- 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
- 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
- May be an unofficial route, but must be a state maintained road
- Already used in Maryland and some parts of Georgia for BUSINESS routes
- 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