Starting in 2004, Georgia began to lead the way to address substandard maintenance of traffic control devices. Tennessee followed suit with a nearly identical program in 2009. Georgia's began with a pilot program, and this program was created to address this most neglected aspect of local road maintenance. It provided specific funding for:
- Traffic signs (regulatory and warning)
- Traffic control studies
- Pavement markings (striping, raised pavement markers, other pavement markings)
- Guardrail repair and replacement
- Mowing and brush cutting to provide better visibility
When you have thousands of local governments thinking traffic control is a luxury item, it is going to cause people to get killed. Thus, the federal government began funding safety projects if the states organized an acceptable means to distribute the funds. As Georgia's plan evolved, the state has taken an increased role in making sure the projects have been done correctly. The initial program mostly involved striping projects and replacing traffic signs in place with no engineering studies. Today, the state's work includes full-scale renovations of specific roads awarded to counties, cities and towns on a first-come first serve basis, but proper traffic studies are by no means a uniform approach with only some districts and some local agencies taking this badly needed extra step.
In all, this plan has led to significant improvement, but the results are still very patchy. It can easily be said that the majority of roads have still not been covered. Many, many local agencies just replaced their existing signs without making any modifications, and GDOT's District 6 in particular has avoided financing traffic studies to correct engineering errors present along those roads. Thus, in many cases an unsafe condition was replaced with another unsafe condition posted at the proper height that is easier to see at night. Obviously other areas do not need as frequent of maintenance and have improved: especially road striping and guardrails. If anything, both of those were vastly improved over the typically non-existent lines and neglected guardrails found on county roads prior to 2004. Nevertheless, even guardrails sometimes need frequent repair. A crash-prone guardrail cannot just be replaced once every 20 years. It may need to be replaced more frequently: something that just does not happen in either a rural county or small city/town/township.
In all, maintenance is not a project to be rewarded infrequently. It takes a constant effort to make sure that everything is where it needs to be, is done right and is continuously up to code. Will these states shift their efforts when these federal-aid projects have fixed the majority of issues? We can only hope so, but for now the plan as it exists could stand to have significant tweaking.
- The issues requiring a complete overhaul should not have been present in the first place, especially on federal-aid eligible roadways.
- While the projects address most of the present safety issues, they do not address the larger issue in that these local agencies are still not equipped financially or structurally to maintain technical traffic operations work.
- Many errors exist on these sign projects that are never corrected on a local level
- Projects are spotty and happen every 5-10 years. They do not overhaul entire road networks in individual jurisdictions. Instead, they only address specific roads.
- Neither state provides any maintenance nor traffic engineering services once these projects are complete
- Guide signs are completely omitted from projects except for in-place replacement with no design modifications if the original signs were incorrect. Proper guide signs should be considered part of safety and should be funded by the state even if federal funds do not cover it.
- Traffic studies are not always performed on these projects resulting in signs that, while MUTCD compliant in design, height and reflectivity are not properly engineered thus creating a greater hazard since they "appear" correct.
- Local governments are under no obligation to either maintain to the same standards nor eventually replace these signs under another agreement. They will do little to nothing if another state administered federal grant is not provided.
- Funding is not committed from a state level. While there is (now) a state funding match (in Georgia), it is largely a federally-funded program. The program will end if the federal program ends.
- Federal funding in this program competes for other safety funding including on the state highway system meaning the funding could be stripped away from local governments to use exclusively on state-owned roads or used for purposes other than traffic control.
- Local governments have broad powers to choose these projects and can decide against them if they do not want to maintain costlier compliant signage meaning that some local governments with the worst conditions deliberately opt out of the program.
- Safety projects are often oversigned and are not planned with any consideration of the financial or structural capabilities of the local governments in maintaining them.
The issues requiring a complete overhaul should not have been present in the first place, especially on federal-aid eligible roadways
While the projects address the issues, they do not address the larger issue in that these local agencies are still not equipped financially or structurally to maintain this technical traffic operations work
Dahlonega, GA shows that while they seem to understand about post height that they are otherwise confused. Are they advocating that you drive 25 MPH past a stopped bus?
This blind curve in Polk County, TN is not indicated with anything more than this completely non-compliant assembly. The speed limit sign should be replaced with a W13-1 advisory and "SLOW" replaced with a right curve sign (W1-2R). A curve with limited sight distance was noted on the hill past this sign.
In a state-aid safety project project in Towns County, GA, it was observed that in one location a reverse turn (W1-3) sign was pointing in the wrong direction and a turn sign (W1-1) was used in two locations where a winding road sign was supposed to be. These issues were not fixed, and this project was completed seven years ago. The state was unable to fix them since they had no authority over the road. On the other hand, the county lacked the funding, resources or interest in correcting the problem thus it never was fixed. In the more recent Union County, GA project several errors were noted including an intersection sign for a private driveway on one road and a missing turn sign on another road (posted in the opposite direction). These also are not likely to be fixed since the engineer's work on the project ceased when the contract ended and neither county has any staff engineers to inspect traffic control. The state at this point has no authority to go back and make small changes to fix these issues. Similar errors were noted in Tennessee along Sciota Road in Unicoi County, TN where the field work did not correctly match traffic studies with curve signs incorrectly applied in several locations.
Projects are spotty and happen every 5-10 years. They do not overhaul entire road networks in individual jurisdictions. Instead, they only address specific roads
Guide signs are completely omitted from projects except for in-kind replacement with no design modifications if the original signs were incorrect
While guide signs are typically not viewed is as critical as warning and regulatory signs, a confused motorist taking the wrong road can lead to accidents or worse. Local governments in far too many states as well as many state DOT's have proven that they do not see the installation and maintenance of guide signs as important. From the unsigned, but designated alphanumeric county highways in California to the decayed former state route signs in Florida to the shoddy workmanship of route and guide signs maintained by many cities/towns along state-owned roads in Virginia, guide signs are a low priority compared to other signs. It is not uncommon to see still-useful guide signs decades old along former highway alignments that ultimately disappear instead of being replaced. Unfortunately, the current policy is essentially that unless a guide sign is already in place the federal funding will not cover their replacement.
This left over guide sign on Old TN 68 first installed by the county before Mecca Pike was a state highway was never MUTCD compliant in the first place, but its lack of maintenance is fairly typical for guide signs on rural local roads. When the roadway was moved, the state should have still been installing and maintaining guide signs along the local roadway. If this was upgraded today, it would most likely be replaced with simply a trailblazer directing traffic to TN Routes 39 & 68.
In addition, little effort is made into using the right dimensions or planning the design for these signs. A general 48" x 24" size has been applied to most directional guide signs in both states meaning difficult to read crowded legends on signs that were possibly larger and more legible before. Route markers, including essential trailblazers, are almost never funded or posted in such projects. If local control meant local function, this would make sense but in both states a significant amount of roadways under local control are functional collectors (major collectors in Georgia, mostly minor collectors in Tennessee). In addition, guide signs as it is are a black eye for states with strong local control. If a local agency is not even going to put up proper curve warning signs the chance of them posting trailblazers, directional guide signs and other information-oriented signs is slim. What does get put up is usually very non-compliant.
Even if local governments are entrusted to put up state-funded signs as they are in states like Virginia and Maryland, guide signs are more of a statewide issue. Planning of guide signs requires an integrated approach where destinations that typically extend far beyond the local borders need to be identified with the best possible route. The state also understands connectivity and roadway classifications better than the local agencies. Thus, the duty to post any type of guide signs on roadways NOT maintained by the state should fall on the state or at least a statewide agency whose duties can be integrated to cover many counties and cities at once. This means that guide signs should always be included in any budget for local sign maintenance in addition to inclusion in the federal-aid safety projects. This also means that the duty to install these signs on any road should fall completely to the state or a regional highway agency with local governments focusing on street name signs.
Traffic studies are not always performed on these projects resulting in signs that, while MUTCD compliant in design, height and reflectivity are not properly engineered thus creating a greater hazard since they "appear" correct
Even if the work is done so beautifully that a county road is indistinguishable from a state highway when the signs are still brand new, the fact is that this once in awhile change in signs is not typically reflected by a change in local policy. Local governments are not legally obligated to maintain what was given to them at the same levels as the state and without proper supervision will typically mess up what was done correctly the first time (such as adding speed limit signs under warning signs). When signs go missing, get damaged or wear out, the only obligation the local agency is under is liability for causing an accident due to defective signs. That is not enough of a deterrent considering that prosecution for engineering errors on a local level is rare. While those circumstances sometimes are successful, usually the local governments prove more difficult to prosecute than the state making it very easy for them to successfully weasel out of situations like this or these problems would not be so common. Most of the time older or missing signs either do not get replaced or replaced in the manner that they were first installed. Sometimes conditions on the roads change such as a new subdivision or traffic operations change that is never corrected in the older signage.
This is where the state must step in and pursue measures that consolidate that responsibility to a statewide level. Either the state DOT must begin to maintain this work for the local agencies or they (with the help of the state legislature) needs to help organize a statewide agency to do this instead. They must also penalize local agencies who fall out of compliance if they do this work incorrectly on their own. The original traffic studies should be held by both agencies, reviewed and periodically checked for compliance with modifications added for changing roadway conditions. Standards should become uniform on all levels of government, and this function needs to be centralized to make sure that a qualified agency is always on top of traffic engineering.
Funding is not committed from a state level. While there is (now) a state funding match (in Georgia), it is largely a federally-funded program
If the states are not willing to otherwise maintain local roads, at least 1% of state highway funding should be set aside annually to finance operations of statewide or regional traffic control centers operating either as part of or independent of the state DOT. Their duties would be to pool local resources from each local agency to properly plan, install and maintain traffic control devices on roads owned and maintained by local governments while the state pays for the engineers salaries, employees and facilities. If any additional funding is available to fund traffic control on behalf of local governments in forms of federal-aid safety grants or state funding, this should be supervised by this agency not by the local government itself. Otherwise, the local agencies would be paying into it. That is what is described in the Traffic Control Cooperative Plan. The state could also expand its capacity for local traffic control by swapping low-tech services with counties and cities such as winter maintenance, summer mowing/weed control, ditch clearing and pothole patching in turn for assisting local governments in sporadically installing, replacing and correcting traffic control. Instead of paying a local agency to maintain roads on behalf of the state or vice versa, the state places the local agency in charge of specific maintenance activities in turn for equivalent payments primarily for local traffic control and traffic studies allowing funding to be adequate for most paved roads to have the majority of traffic control serviced by the state. This is what is described in the Local Exchange Plan.
At the very least, having the state government expand its traffic control responsibility to roads they do not own such as collectors and arterials would be of great benefit meaning that these efforts would not be in vain. If as-is replacements are full of errors, the state would still have good "bones" to work with in that all signs and posts in the field are to the most up-to-date standards and in good repair. At the very least they could make some adjustments to work completed in projects and add to what is there if needed.
Federal funding in this program competes for other safety funding including on the state highway system meaning the funding could be stripped away from local governments to use exclusively on state-owned roads or used for purposes other than traffic control
Local governments have broad powers to choose these projects and can decide against them if they do not want to maintain costlier compliant signage meaning that some local governments with the worst conditions deliberately opt out of the program
Many will argue that this strategy is better than nothing being done at all, and they are right. Many states refuse to delve into local matters at all, and the states taking even an indirect role in local traffic control is a huge improvement over the 1990's where state-aid in both states was limited to local paving projects and major construction. Indeed, it is a step in the right direction and a continuation of even this program will have a lasting impact that will bring both state's local systems closer to full compliance. However, it is still not an effective long-term strategy to bring an entire state into uniformity due to the fact that it does not actually correct the root of the problem. Engineering problems will still exist, maintenance will still be inadequate and the majority of local government agencies will still not be qualified to handle traffic control matters by themselves.
The reason for this is that traffic control maintenance is not a touch and go strategy. It requires an active approach that local agencies simply have not done well enough to be entrusted with. While local control has many benefits, the cost to local governments for safety improvements is simply too high while the need is too low for it ever to take adequate priority. Because of this, states as a whole, including the two state examples here, need to expand this program by funding regional traffic control cooperatives that not only place the authority for off-system safety projects under their jurisdiction, but also place maintenance authority for traffic control on local roads with them regardless of the level of funding provided by the local governments for that purpose. States like North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware have demonstrated that even with tight budget constraints that a centralized strategy to traffic control is not only very effective but may actually reduce overall costs. Likewise, it is not acceptable to place technical matters in the hands of a small local agency without any staff engineers or purchasing power with the expectation that this is something they will be able to handle well. Such duties must be collectivized into larger units to be effective whether it be the state government or a statewide cooperative. Overall, states are better trained, better organized and better able to absorb costs like this far more easily than a local agency that is sensitive to population, unit costs, politics, income levels of residents and capacity.