Monday, December 8, 2014

Major changes needed to MUTCD to improve uniformity of traffic control devices

Currently the MUTCD permits any government jurisdiction to have the authority to engineer, install and maintain traffic control devices.  The problem is that this clause in no way guarantee that a particular agency is actually adept at handling this responsibility.  While local control has its place, it is in no way an effective way to manage traffic control devices.  With enforcement on a state level of local agencies virtually non-existent in most states and local agencies are rarely being audited by federal authorities, the MUTCD has turned into an inside joke.  What this means is that the possibility of a roadway off of a state-maintained road having incorrectly laid out and/or maintained traffic control devices is almost certain.

Additionally, many states allow cities to have partial or complete control of traffic control devices on both roads owned by the city and by the state.  In the cases of the state roads, there is no guarantee that the city in charge is actually maintaining signs along state roads to the level that the state would otherwise.  In many larger cities, it is often found that route and guide signs are very old or inconsistent and that other traffic safety devices are in similar disrepair.  Financially, the consolidation of responsibility to a city level makes sense, but this does not in any way guarantee that what is there is being kept to either modern engineering standards, MUTCD standards or maintained at adequate frequency to meet acceptable standards.  Self-policing simply does not work in regards to traffic control devices.

The City of Baltimore maintains a portion of I-83 through the city.  Overhead guide signs are in tremendous disrepair along city-maintained portions.  While interesting from a historical standpoint (button copy lettering), the complete lack of maintenance proves that the city is incapable of adequately maintaining large overhead guide signs meaning that the state should be in charge of such activities regardless of local ownership.  (Source, AARoads)

Likewise in most states, the authority to manage traffic control devices does not extend beyond the defined state highway system in almost all states.  With numerous small local agencies placed in charge of a responsibility that they are often ill-equipped for either structurally or financially, the responsibility should not always be falling on the local authorities just because they own a stretch of road.  Because of this, a badly needed rewrite of several sections of the MUTCD is recommended to shift that responsibility to the agency that has the best organized government unit for that purpose.  This means that in most cases, the financial, regulatory and engineering responsibility should fall either on the states or a traffic control cooperative developed by the states or federal planning regions that pools resources in a way that local governments can afford to have traffic control properly funded and supervised at a cost that is within their budgets.  In the case of the District of Columbia, this authority should fall either on the federal government (Corps of Engineers) who at present is the only authority above the city itself or should include a cooperative with local governments in adjacent states such as Arlington County, VA, City of Alexandria, VA and Montgomery County, MD.  Likewise, traffic control features in public parks, schools and government facilities should also be overseen by something besides the park, school or facility themselves since they are technically a public road.  Since some roadways fall under the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior or other federal agencies that similarly are understaffed for that purpose, perhaps that responsibility should be centralized into the Corps of Engineers as well.

Maple St. approaching Brush Hill Road in Litchfield Township, CT is an example of local government too small to be able to manage traffic control devices.  With a population of 8,466 the town clearly does not have the resources to hire an engineering staff so traffic control maintenance is sparse and incorrect.  In this image you see an incorrectly applied combination curve/warning sign with a speed limit in lieu of an advisory.  The brook in the foreground lacks any object markers or guardrails (only driven in wood posts).  No sign at all is posted in the opposite direction for the hazardous curve condition, either.  Also note the faded out lines.  Behind this image is a three-way stop with 24" Stop signs (no longer standard), no "ALL-WAY" plaques and no "Stop Ahead" to warn of the condition northbound (image from Google Street View).

Another view of Maple St southbound approaching the above mentioned four-way stop.  This is a bit further north.  Note the "Slow Children At Play" haphazardly placed under Stop Ahead.  This road is a fairly straight road except for a couple sharp curves.  With a proper approach to centralizing traffic control responsibility away from the township, this road could have far better engineered traffic signs at minimal cost (image from Google Street View).

While the states may not be currently prepared to accept this responsibility, the focus of federal funding should also shift to make this possible.  While grant programs help, dedicating part of federal transportation dollars just to finance safety improvements is a wise step to assure that not only are states in compliance but also that local agencies are given the resources necessary to provide this service to their local community.  Likewise, the states should explore ways to consolidate many government functions in a manner to make such work as financially feasible as possible.  If states like Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware, all states with limited revenues, can handle the responsible of traffic control devices on both state and county road systems through full state control, the other states who do not take this approach can certainly find a way to centralize this specific government function in which local agencies have proved unreliable, inconsistent and often inept at doing on their own.

What is this sign?  Is it a curve or is it a turn?  Also note the single line in the center in lieu of double lines.  This mess is found on Harrison Road northbound in New Hartford Township, CT.  Another one of many New England townships with shoddy traffic signs, these make up the functionally defunct Litchfield County.  As part of a county with 190,000 residents, revenues would likely be adequate to maintain all traffic signs correctly if traffic engineering and traffic signs were centralized to a county, regional or state level.  (Image from Google Street View)

Note that what is being said here is NOT that the state will have to do everything for the cities and counties.  There is room for local control, but local control must be engineer-driven including checks and balances to be effective.  Any county, city, town or township could comply with the changes below simply by being properly trained by state authorities, having or using proper equipment, receiving conditional funding from the state or federal government just for that purpose, purchasing only from state-approved vendors, having all traffic engineering handled by qualified engineers and coordinating with state authorities on all traffic control procedures instead of operating independent of the state.  But "could" is the key word.  How much could they do if the budget in a township is $850,000 and hiring a PTOE alone would cost 12% of the budget?  Is it realistic to think that any local agency with a low population and small tax base has what it takes to do everything listed above?  They could do all of this, but not alone.

What many do not realize is that once devices are in place, the cost of maintenance is far lower than the initial major improvements if the responsible local jurisdiction is adequately maintaining them and they were correct to start with.  Major overhauls are only needed because those in charge failed or were unable to comply with proper standards, keep a proper sign inventory, properly invest in such work or place traffic control devices without following proper protocols.  Knockdowns and stolen signs should be located and replaced, worn out signs should be replaced, signs should comply with sign plans and all traffic signs should be designed properly and those with proper knowledge should be able to point out significant errors with the ability to get them changed.  

By doing it correctly the first time and every time, costs would be reduced and safety would be greatly enhanced regardless of what road or what state one happens to drive on.  Obviously in the real world that means that some economies of scale are needed, and the best way to create those is to accept that consolidating some things such as highly technical matters to a more concentrated or higher level of government should be policy instead of optional.  Indeed, some things need to be handled from a level where following a proper process is not financially difficult or impossible.


NOTE: To traffic engineers who read this next part, this is NOT to be viewed or adopted as an actual change in public policy unless adopted and approved by FHWA and the NCUTCD.  If these changes were adopted, they would become part of the actual MUTCD.  This is a suggested revision based on field observations in many states, and this is an entirely independent analysis.

The suggested changes to Section 1A.07 should be as follows.

Section 1A.07 Responsibility for Traffic Control Devices
01 The responsibility for the design, placement, operation, maintenance, and uniformity of traffic control
devices shall rest with the public agency or the official having jurisdiction the state agency, multi-jurisdictional regional agency of adequate population threshold or federal agency authorized to regulate public roads in their respective state, federal land or federal district, or, in the case of private roads
open to public travel, with the private owner or private official having jurisdiction. 23 CFR 655.603
adopts the MUTCD as the national standard for all traffic control devices installed on any street, highway,
bikeway, or private road open to public travel (see definition in Section 1A.13). When a State State or other
Federal agency manual or supplements are is required to clearly define state or federal specific signs, sign standards and regulations that are otherwise not otherwise present in the National MUTCD.  , tThat manual or supplement shall be in substantial conformance with the National MUTCD.
08 States should adopt Section 15-116 of the “Uniform Vehicle Code,” which states that, “No person shall
install or maintain in any area of private property used by the public any sign, signal, marking, or other device
intended to regulate, warn, or guide traffic unless it conforms with the State manual and specifications adopted
under Section 15-104.”
09 States should not permit individual local authorities to have exclusive jurisdiction or responsibility for the layout, installation and maintenance of traffic control devices.
10 Supervision of all traffic control devices should be under a qualified traffic engineer, preferably with a PTOE certification.
11 Any government agency unable to afford to hire a PTOE to oversee traffic control should partner with the state or other local agencies to the extent that they are capable of affording to hire this employee
12 States, statewide agencies working on behalf of local governments, private engineering firms working on behalf of the state or statewide agency, regional traffic control cooperatives or federal agencies should design, engineer, install and maintain traffic control devices in all local jurisdictions that are financially or structurally incapable of fully maintaining traffic control devices to MUTCD standards.
13 Any state, district, territory or subdivision of a state, district or territory may partner with an adjacent state, district or territory or subdivision of a state, district or territory for the purpose of maintaining traffic control devices.

The suggested changes to Section 1A.08 should be as follows.

Section 1A.08 Authority for Placement of Traffic Control Devices
01 Traffic control devices, advertisements, announcements, and other signs or messages within the highway
right-of-way shall be placed only as authorized by a public authority or the official having jurisdiction the state agency, multi-jurisdictional regional agency of adequate population threshold or federal agency authorized to regulate public roads in their respective state, federal land or federal district, or,
in the case of private roads open to public travel, by the private owner or private official having jurisdiction,
for the purpose of regulating, warning, or guiding traffic.
02 When the public agency or the official having jurisdiction over a street or highway or, in the case of
private roads open to public travel, the private owner or private official having jurisdiction, has granted
proper authority, others such as contractors and public utility companies shall be permitted to install
temporary traffic control devices in temporary traffic control zones. Such traffic control devices shall
conform with the Standards of this Manual.
03 All regulatory traffic control devices shall be supported by laws, ordinances, or regulations in compliance with state and/or federal law.
04 Provisions of this Manual are based upon the concept that effective traffic control depends upon both
appropriate application of the devices and reasonable enforcement of the regulations, thus state and/or federal agencies must have final jurisdiction over devices and regulations regardless of whether roadway is under state, regional or local ownership with states instead of local agencies responsible for regulating such devices regardless of the actual agency responsible.
05 Although some highway design features, such as curbs, median barriers, guardrails, speed humps or tables,
and textured pavement, have a significant impact on traffic operations and safety, they are not considered to be
traffic control devices and provisions regarding their design and use are generally not included in this Manual.  Responsibility, however, must be treated the same as traffic control devices with jurisdiction falling under the same state and federal agencies to assure uniformity in application and maintenance.
07 Signs and other devices that do not have any traffic control purpose that are placed within the highway
right-of-way shall not be located where they will interfere with, or detract from, traffic control devices.
08 Any unauthorized traffic control device or other sign or message placed on the highway right-of-way by a
private organization or individual constitutes a public nuisance and should be removed. All unofficial or nonessential

traffic control devices, signs, or messages should be removed.  
09 The state has the authority to determine if such devices are non-compliant and may require correction or removal along roadways maintained by local or regional authorities.
10 The appropriate federal agency where no conflict of interest is present has the authority to determine if such devices are non-compliant and may require correction or removal along roadways maintained by various federal agencies or the District of Columbia.

The suggested changes to Section 2A.03 are as follows:

Section 2A.03 Standardization of Application
01 It is recognized that urban traffic conditions differ from those in rural environments, and in many instances
signs are applied and located differently. Where pertinent and practical, this Manual sets forth separate
recommendations for urban and rural conditions.
02 Signs should be used only where justified by engineering judgment or studies, as provided in Section 1A.09. 03 Engineering judgment or studies should only be performed under supervision of the responsible state, regional or federal agencies.  Local agencies may not perform engineering studies without subsequent review and approval of all plans by the state, regional or federal agency with ultimate oversight over a particular jurisdiction.  Engineering judgment by local authorities is subject to review by state or federal agencies.
04 All federal-aid eligible roadways, regardless of jurisdiction, are required to have engineering studies reviewed by the state or federal agency responsible and must comply with MUTCD standards in order to receive federal funding.

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