Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Shoddy Signs Spotlight: Arlington (Middlesex County), MA

The focus on this blog has largely been on the Southeast so far, but New England should not be left out when discussing poor traffic control standards.  This is especially true in Massachusetts who relies more heavily on townships than any other state in New England with an extremely low ratio of state control (8%).  Most New England states maintain on average around 19% of their road networks.  What all New England states share, however, are these typically poorly maintained township roads: at least as far as traffic control devices are concerned.  In fact, New England is actually worse off than the Southeast due to their complete reliance on this antiquated model of governance for all services including roads.

Check out the cheap and shoddy work here on Forest St.  Apparently purchasing signposts is out of the question with this bridge clearance "warning sign" (a guide sign?) posted on the left side of the street.  Unless you're in the UK, it's posted on both sides or it's a one-way street, you do not post signs like this on the left side of the street.  Also note the nearly impossible to read warning sign on the right (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

If towns are closer to the people, shouldn't they have more time to clear vegetation away from a sign?  Here it is once again...a sign on a telephone pole.  While such a thing is perfectly allowed, that should be limited to when the pole is in a visible location.  The sign, posted in a non-approved font, mentions something about flooding at the underpass ahead.  I'd hate to be the guy who missed this sign after a summer gully washer (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

Here is a correction for this mess you see in the previous images.  First, there are obvious space restrictions on this street judging by the crazy telephone pole signs.  This means that the low clearance sign should probably be mounted overhead possibly adding a special "LOW BRIDGE" or "LOW CLEARANCE" plaque since this is what they wanted to convey.  A proper W12-2 sign also replaces the non-standard guide sign on the left (I don't think people are looking for directions to "LOW BRIDGE").  Also, the wordy and confusing information warning of possible flooding under the bridge was replaced with an MUTCD standard W8-18 sign on the right.  There is adequate space for a single sign on the right.   It should be noted that this bridge is also in a sharp curve, but this is not even signed northbound (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

The fun doesn't stop continuing on dangerous Forest St. in this hapless little burg.  Here you see the "low bridge" with no warning under it whatsoever except some small text spray painted on the bridge and a couple reflective strips on the sidewalk rails.  No object markers, no actual low clearance sign.  Nothing to make up for the shabby advanced warning (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

This obviously narrow underpass with restricted height needs a little more than some strips of red and white reflective sheeting used on big rigs.  Added here in this photoshopped image were two object markers to properly indicate bridge supports and a proper W12-2p clearance sign mounted over the roadway to further alert large trucks that might have a reason to use this street (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

While many states in the US have townships, New England takes it a step further essentially rendering counties as nothing more than interesting geographical features.  In fact, Middlesex County, MA was voided as a functional entity in 1997 leaving the individual towns including Arlington as the ONLY governing bodies within the county.  Even New York and New Jersey both split responsibility between counties and townships retaining at least some county government just for the maintenance of arterial and collector roads.  While there might be a few benefits in the township system in terms of public access to elected officials, those benefits do not include roads, taxes or any other government service.  With high costs and low output due to the tremendous number of tiny towns carving up the much larger counties, quite a few townships do not have a good grasp on properly installing and maintain traffic control devices and other safety improvements.  On top of this, the majority of town maintained roads tend to be built very substandard.

Here is the other side of the rail trail underpass: another of the wordy, worthless sign that could be stated in three words via W8-18 hanging on a rather unsafe telephone pole.  Also note the curve sign in the background (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

Fortunately it appears newer curve signs noted in the city do not have this extreme of an error, but this needs to be replaced!  There is not any curve sign posted in the other direction.  This also appears to be a condition for a turn sign instead of a curve sign.  If they want you to go "slo" they need to say just how much sloer (sic) than the posted speed limit.  In fact, it appears that no actual speed limit is posted on the street (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

The fact is, much like some remote county or small town in the Deep South, townships have a pretty good excuse in not following proper engineering standards.  Their small size and low population typically does not justify the extra expenses involved in hiring a traffic engineer to make sure they are doing this job correctly, but this system is clearly not working when it comes to managing roads.  Arlington Township, MA is just one example of many.  Other townships in Massachusetts are likely far worse.

Gloucester St at Highland Avenue shows that the town also is, at times, font challenged.  This Stop sign is by no means MUTCD compliant even though it has the right shape, color and post height simply because the font is incorrect.  The street name sign is also incorrect for two reasons: improper letter height and no cross-street posted.  Street name signs are among the most frequently in error of all signs in the MUTCD: enough that AASHTO caved and at least permitted some color variations, which do not appear to be an issue here.  8" text is not required here since both streets are posted less than 30 MPH.  (Image from Google Street View, 2012)

Zoomed in here is Crosby St and Columbia Rd.  While the sign in the foreground is MUTCD standard, the dead end sign in the background is definitely not.  The MUTCD offers two options for Dead End signs, but a rectangular sign in an 18" x 24" blank is definitely not one of those.  These signs are so common that this should not even be an issue!  A 24" x 24" "DEAD END" sign surely cannot cost much more than what they posted there, but if you're skimping on post height like they are in the image, perhaps it might be slightly too large.  It is usually not an issue when the sign is mounted with a proper 7' clearance.  (Image from Google Street View, 2012)

Arlington is not exactly a low population place.  Its population includes 42,000 residents meaning that alone they should have enough money for proper devices even if they lack funds for an engineer, but consider that the township is small and one of 296 townships along with 55 cities.  These townships really split the funding and jurisdictional pie into very small slivers, so accountability is pretty weak as well as state level funding even though Massachussetts has an ample gas tax rate of 24 cents/gallon.  It should be noted that not all signs in the town are bad, and many have appeared to have improved in recent years, but the errors noted are not small errors.  There is also a noticeable lack of curve warning signs and chevrons, a lack of proper intersection warning signs and street name signs all are in the wrong font.  If the county itself was handling these street signs you can bet that these issues would not be nearly as bad as what you see in these images.  If the sign program was handled by the county alone, it would certainly be a very different story considering that Middlesex County has a population that is 1,503,085: slightly less than the population of the entire state of Idaho!  Most Idaho counties, however, have a much better sign program with far fewer people!

Lastly check out this gem on Old Mystic Road.  The vague "Danger Slow" sign with the weeds almost obscuring the sign actually refers to an approaching Stop sign!!!  Yes, where a W3-1 (Stop Ahead) sign should be used, instead they're just giving you some vague message about a hazard ahead.  The hazard is a non-optional stop situation.  (Image from Google Street View, 2012)

Yes, the fix is this simple on Old Mystic Road  (Image from Google Street View, 2012).

The reason I picked Arlington is because a friend referred this particular jurisdiction to me due to their very, very poor design and engineering of traffic signs.  When I saw the condition, I felt the town was worthy of this dishonor to be featured here to show how not to engineer and maintain traffic signs.  The examples here shown around the town demonstrate the problem with the township model in regards to traffic control and why either a cluster of towns in the region (or the whole state) should form a traffic control cooperative or this responsibility for traffic control devices should be handled by the counties, a multi-town regional road district or MassTrans.  Perhaps the most simple and effective approach for New England townships, at least in populous counties, is to either create a county-wide engineering department possibly jointly funded by all towns based on population that oversees all townships, provides equipment on a rental/loan basis, consolidates purchasing and takes over the production, installation and maintenance of traffic control and other safety devices.  Another option is to meet with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (Boston) and establish a traffic control region within the bounds of that area.  This way towns can keep their local control without doing such a shoddy job.  Meanwhile the town can do a better job with far less cost while being required to minimally support a PTOE and any other traffic engineers hired for the region as the cost would be spread across many cities and towns.


It is no secret that New England residents love their town governments.  While close to the people and quaint, they are a disaster for traffic engineering.  Seeing that the biggest issues that towns like this have are with traffic control, this is an example of why townships statewide should form regional cooperatives that handle traffic control.  Since Massachusetts is a small state, this cooperative should preferably be statewide developed through the Massachusetts Municipal Association with subdivisions based on and brokered with American Planning Association: Massachusetts Chapter for the 14 regional planning commission districts.  With such a low ratio of state control, it is almost certain that state revenues to the towns are adequate, but not adequate enough to fund traffic control for 296 different towns!  Combining it this unit would take care of all traffic signs and signals on behalf of the townships and cities unifying standards statewide.  While the cooperative unit would not be permitted to set local traffic ordinances or post guide signs without first gaining town approval or funding, they would have broad discretion to make decisions based on most standard warning/regulatory signage and traffic markings pooling resources, consolidating purchases and using the same equipment across many different townships.  In this case, borders would no longer matter, and situations like those seen here in Arlington would disappear.

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