Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Shoddy Signs Spotlight: Coffee County, TN

Tennessee counties are among the worst when it comes to proper installation and maintenance of traffic control devices.  With adequate state level revenues, the fact remains that very few counties in the state do it correctly.  Prior to the High Risk Rural Roads grant program, the state for decades has also made no direct investment in helping counties in this area.  In fact, the majority of rural roads in Tennessee have few to no traffic signs posted at all regardless of whether they are a designated collector route or a functionally local road.  One of those reasons is that very few counties have a county engineer (less than 10 out of 100 counties) due to resources being spread thin over many rural counties.  It's not that these counties make no effort at all, but the interest in having consistent standards or full compliance with the MUTCD is a low priority and, prior to HRRRP, absolutely no portion of state funding was applied to correcting or updating safety issues on Tennessee's county roads.

Perhaps it should also be noted that cities are favored over counties for state-aid by a wide margin meaning counties are pretty much left on their own.  It is telling in the way that consolidated city-counties and larger cities tend to do a much better job with traffic control even in high population areas.  In fact, Tennessee has been second only to Georgia in their push to consolidate city and county governments indicating that there is definitely a funding problem for counties.

Tennessee also has some of the most mountainous terrain in the United States, so this makes rural county roads particularly dangerous.  TDOT also functionally classifies all local roads outside of urbanized areas with no classification higher than "minor collector", which makes the former federal-aid secondary roads apparently ineligible for federal-aid.  By extension this makes it more difficult to invest in improvements on the most heavily traveled county roads.  With sharp curves, steep drop-offs and often narrow roadways without any shoulders these are the roads that should have the most safety upgrades.  In geometry, they are quite similar to Virginia's secondary state roads except for the dearth of adequate safety improvements.

In Tennessee, the culture of local control with little state interference is also strong.   In fact, Tennessee is unique in that road commissioner is an elected position separate from the county mayor.  Because of this separate elected position, there is even less accountability in regards to road standards than other states where roads fall directly under the county administration.  Most rural counties in Tennessee are also quite poor, so when the money for road improvements starts flowing, safety improvements take a very low priority.  It is not uncommon to see traffic signs from federal-aid projects left over from the 1960's that never get replaced, although TDOT's rural safety program has at the very least replaced many of these decrepit signs.  What does in fact get replaced is also quite substandard.  Likely those federal-aid projects are also the only instance that any actual traffic study was ever completed for signs.  Roads also only tend to be restriped after being repaved making roads that have not been resurfaced in a number of years very dark at night.  Guardrails installed in the 1960's with blunt end guardrails also are still commonly found along county-maintained roads.

Since Tennessee is among the worst states for MUTCD compliance on local roadways, a large number of counties will eventually be featured on the "shoddy signs spotlight" feature of this site.  While this is likely to offend these counties and cities who do this, they may not even be aware that there is a problem.  It is hoped that seeing this will inspire them to consider strategies like those proposed on this blog to fix these issues.  Counties will not be the only thing shown, though as municipalities in most states actually have far more issues than the counties.


Coffee County, with a population of over 50,000, is actually not one of the worst cases for poorly maintained traffic safety improvements in the state.  The county was picked initially partly because they actually have made an effort beyond what other counties in the state have done.  Because of this, it is far easier to showcase the numerous issues with visible roadway features than to show a county that has little in the way of signage at all.  This post is actually to show what they're doing wrong and how it could be done better.  Most likely at least the signs themselves that will be shown here will eventually be corrected through the federal-aid safety projects, but it is important to note that what might look okay to the naked eye actually is not and also needs policy changes.  Several locations will be highlighted with images showing the problems in this post.  

Westbound Rutledge Falls Road.  The Rutledge Falls parking area is to the right.  The curve ahead is actually the sharpest turn in the beginning of a series of curves with two sharper curves.  It is posted with a turn sign eastbound as is shown in the next image. (Google Street View)

Eastbound Rutledge Falls Road approaching the same sharp turn as above, but posted instead with a turn sign.  Using a curve or turn sign in a sharp turn is not optional depending on the direction or what type of sign is available in the shop.  It's either a turn or a curve.  (Google Street View)

A short ways to the west of the sign above is this winding road assembly marking the two sharper and two smaller curves in the vicinity of Rutledge Falls.  The terrain forms a small hollow along a low plateau where the curves are located. (Google Street View)

Rutledge Falls Road shown here is designated by TDOT as a minor collector.  It has some pretty typical errors for rural counties in Tennessee.  This series of turns on Rutledge Falls Road was shown to highlight the typical lazy work being done by local governments in many states.  It appears at some point the county road commissioner decided to install curve warning signs county-wide, but they never hired a traffic engineer nor did they correctly follow the MUTCD in the process.  A number of issues are noted in these images:
  1. The advisory speed posted does not appear to have actually been determined properly (ball-bank study).  The way that it is posted for the W1-2L curve southbound but the W1-5L winding road northbound is misleading.  Likely the advisory speed would be higher.
  2. The curve in the first two photos is posted as a curve southbound, but it is posted as a turn northbound.  You can't have two different types of curve warning signs in different directions marking the same condition.  If the 15 MPH advisory speed is correct, then only W1-1 turn signs should be posted.
  3. Warning signs posted are 24" signs.  While this was still compliant when these signs were posted, this is no longer a compliant practice to use 24" signs for curve warning situations.
  4. "SLOW" signs are posted.  Slow (formerly W42-2) is a removed MUTCD sign and are basically useless as a warning sign giving a vague message to drivers.  It was removed from the MUTCD in 1961.  At least in this instance it was included with a 15 MPH advisory speed although better ways to enhance the sign could be used such as orange diamonds, flashing beacons and larger signs.
  5. The signs look cluttered.  While overlapping of warning and advisory signs is not expressly forbidden, it has a knack for making signs look less important and thus less noticeable and more difficult to read.  Most likely this was done, because the county did not specify anything higher than an 8' direct-driven post.  It is known that many rural counties lack sign trucks and thus are unable to post taller signs.
  6. The post height is way too low.  On the clustered curve/slow/advisory combos, the bottom of the signs almost touches the ground.  Rural applications are supposed to have a minimum of 5' above the edge of pavement per the MUTCD.  In no way is this the case here where signposts appear to be near uniformly no more than 5-6' above the ground county-wide.  The reasons are specified in #5 above.
  7. The southbound curve sign in the first image is not MUTCD-spec.  This non-standard W1-2 design was applied county-wide with at least half of the curve signs posted with that look.  This was likely either an in-house job or a purchase from a sign vendor that was not state-approved (or not properly reviewed for compliance).  Many of the cheaper sign vendors produce traffic signs with designs that are not in compliance with the MUTCD.
  8. As typically noted statewide, the lines on the roadways are faded out and need to be re-striped.
  9. The double arrow sign posted at the junction of Cat Creek Road and Rutledge Falls Road is bolted to a tree and warped by tree growth.  It also has incorrect design and dimensions.
  10. Stop signs (not shown) are 24" x 24" and are no longer compliant needing replacement with standard 30" x 30" signs.

The image above annotated from Google Earth highlights all the issues with potential corrections to each traffic engineering issue.  Also included was a D1-1 guide sign to indicate the change of direction along the minor collector routing.

The situation presented on Rutledge Falls Road is by no means an isolated condition.  County-wide, severe traffic hazards are present because of shoddy sign work.  The next series of photos captured from Google Maps will highlight some of the many other areas where major improvements are needed.  The hope is that elected officials will find the means to begin to correct these issues, form a cooperative with other cities/counties to improve standards/oversight and/or push the state for a direct role in maintaining roadway safety features.  The county should also pursue a combination of resources with cities to help improve economies of scale and normalize roadway standards.  

Powers Bridge Road west of Manchester features a very dangerous situation with the guardrail on the left side lacking any anchor whatsoever located very close to the edge of the roadway.  The background sign is also incorrect using a T-intersection sign (W2-4) instead of the appropriate W2-2.  Also note the faded out condition of the lines on the roadway.  If full road striping is too costly then at least the centerline should be well-maintained.  (Google Maps)

Old Woodbury Highway north of Gowan Road has W1-8 chevrons posted on the wrong side of the road and posted incorrectly.  This is a 90 degree turn.  Behind this only a W1-1 turn sign is used (no advisory). (Google Maps)

These non-standard curve signs were found county-wide a decade ago, and are still found in most areas of the county.   This sign was noted on Wayside Road east of Pete Sain Rd. They do not have a correct design and were loosely applied to nearly every condition that involved a curve.  As noted in the background, chevrons are posted.  Chevrons are usually posted if the curve has an advisory speed 10 or more miles less than the roadway. (Google Maps)

Major engineering, safety and sign design issues are found on Short Springs Road (part of the same minor collector route as Rutledge Falls Road) in the City of Tullahoma (inside Coffee County).  The first shows a completely non-standard device used to mark the curve approaching the Bobo Creek bridge.  This is followed by a short blunt-end guardrail segment approaching a bridge with no railing.  However, the object markers on the bridge were applied correctly. (Google Maps)

It was noted through Google Earth that a highway safety project was underway in 2013 in Coffee County along Fredonia Road as well as work noted on Maple Springs Road.  While it is possible that further issues are planned for correction through the Local Roads Safety Initiative (TDOT's application of the HRRP similar to GDOT's Off-System Safety Improvement Program), it is important to note that these issues should have never been present and that the HRRP is a goal-oriented program financed largely with federal funds.  This does not fix a systemic problem.  The improvements do not mean that any local policies were changed.  While the county should continue to seek help at improving these issues, the county should begin to improve many practices on their own.  As a middle population county, the resources are available to do a better job than they've been doing if used efficiently.  The steps the county alone should take are:
  1. ENGINEERING STUDY: Hire a PTOE or traffic engineering firm with a PTOE to review all of the county's signs and guardrails with priority given to roadways designated collector or arterial.  This should include a traffic study that corrects every engineering issue and details modifications whether or not funding is available to fix them.
  2. POST HEIGHT: Correct post height issues throughout the county.  Signs need to be much higher than they are posted now so that they at least comply with the 5' minimum clearance.  The cheapest short-term way to do this is to take the existing posts, pull them out of the ground and install a 3' soil anchor cleaning off the base of the taller post.  This will automatically add 3' in post height.
  3. TDOT STANDARDS: Adopt TDOT standards including purchasing signs only from state-approved vendors to correct sign issues.
  4. TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE TRAINING: Send employees involved with installation, layout and maintenance of traffic control devices to seminars to learn how to do it correctly.
  5. INSPECTION: Have an engineering consultant annually spot inspect traffic control devices for errors.
  6. MUTCD STANDARDS: Follow MUTCD standards when installing and replacing any sign.  This means at the very least make sure signs comply with designs in the Standard Highway Signs manual and that sign dimensions comply with the charts in the MUTCD.
  7. FUNDING/REPLACEMENT SCHEDULE: Continue to use state/federal help whenever possible and budget an annual zone installation/replacement schedule on roads that received traffic engineering studies.
  8. DATA INVENTORY: Inventory all new signs installed with GIS mapping and GPS coordinates.
  9. GUARDRAIL SAFETY: Replace dangerous guardrails and guardrail anchors county-wide.
  10. BRIDGE RAILS: Improve bridge rails with either guardrail treatments, repairs or new railing.  Using surplus railing is acceptable as long as it has proper breakway anchors, is installed correctly and is not too low.  If the railing is concrete, contract with the state for those repairs.
  11. COOPERATIVE MAINTENANCE: Develop a regional traffic control cooperative based on the planning region with adjacent counties and cities for layout, installation, fabrication and maintenance of traffic signs, guardrails and pavement markings.  If TDOT offers, hire them as a contractor to maintain these items on behalf of the county.
  12. SERVICE SWAPPING WITH TDOT: Broker a service swap agreement with TDOT that amounts to the county providing specific road maintenance services on behalf of the state in turn for an equivalent amount of traffic control maintenance on county roads.
TDOT should also note this as an example of how even middle-population counties struggle to provide proper maintenance of traffic safety devices.  This and many other examples should lead to a plan to provide annual funding from the state DOT budget to counties and cities with the state either furnishing safety items for local governments or reimbursing local work if that work complies with TDOT standards and engineering studies.  At no point should these safety improvements been allowed to become this substandard.  If Coffee County formed a cooperative, then state-aid should be applied to the cooperative to allow a more efficient and effective plan for upgrading and replacing defective devices.

It is hoped that examples such as Coffee County will lead to changes that assure that even with limited funds that what is in place on the roads is done the correct way.  If a local agency cannot install and maintain traffic signs to proper specifications, then they should not be posting them at all.  It is better that any local agency does not post any signs than for them to post them incorrectly.  The latter is actually far more hazardous and is not very effective.  It is hoped that by highlighting all of these issues that action will be taken to systematically correct these problems in the best manner possible while funding on a state level is available to make the process far more feasible.  

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