Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trailblazing Doesn't Just Involve Just Trails: A Need for Statewide Guide Sign Management

Think about the last time you went hiking.  What did you typically see lots of?  Unless you are a hardcore wilderness explorer, you probably saw signs giving mileage to points along the trail, places where the trail changed direction, names of trails and you might have even traveled a numbered forest road to reach it.  More than likely it was not assumed you could just use a GPS or smartphone to figure out where you needed to hike, and cell phone service at best was probably sketchy if it was a true wilderness hike.  Often times, the forest road you used to reach that trail also had extensive guide signs pointing you to trails, points of interest and the nearest roadway junction.  Unfortunately, outside of the forest lands it is not so easy to find your way.  Guidance isn't so well posted on local roads (roads maintained by counties and municipalities) like it is in the forest, and often it isn't even that good on the state highway system with guide sign planning often 30-50 years out of date.  What the forest service provides is something that is becoming increasingly rare on local roads: easy to understand local routes, directional and distance signs and trailblazers ("TO" route assemblies) to the nearest main highway.

Illustration of typical trailblazer assembly

Forest road guide signs in the Cherokee National Forest (photo taken in 2004).  While not 100% MUTCD standard, the assembly demonstrates that guide signs are needed off of the major highways.

One thing that has been noticed is that, while states have proven to be far more consistent and effective at posting of route and guide signs, the problem is when the road isn't owned by the state.  Many states installed guide and route signs along local roads up into the 1970's, but today with increasing costs have decided to just let them disappear.  Even worse is that local governments see very little importance in furnishing or maintaining guide signs on their own nor seeking state assistance in helping them decide where they are needed.  With budgets already inadequate for the signs they have, guide signs are seen generally as an unnecessary expense except for signs marking county lines, city limits, parks and government buildings.  What counties often do install is typically non-compliant and often so substandard it shouldn't even be permitted for use on a public road.  While the numbers of these types of signs required are few, these are some of the most difficult to plan and design of all roadway signs.  Usually a professional engineer is needed, and the overall cost is still excessive for local governments when most local roadways don't even have sufficient curve warning signs.

Some examples of local government neglect/misuse of guide signs is shown below:

Heavily deteriorated guide sign on Alloway Road in Cumberland County, TN approaching TN 68.  Sign was later completely removed.  Note that these and other examples are in Southeast states because the author is most familiar with these places.

Guide sign installed on a 1970's FAS project near Butler, GA approaching GA 137.  Sign bracket broken from sign here with sign later removed.

Old GA 336 at Tower Road in Stephens County.  How does a condition that was warranted in the 70's somehow no longer warrant any guide signs?  These were also removed.

Old GA 184 at GA 198 in Banks County, GA.  Installed in the 1980's, none of the guide signs along this highway like this one were ever replaced after roadway was transferred to the local government.  If signs like these do not get removed beforehand, sometimes they get replaced in an off-system safety project.

A horrendous replacement of a late 60's FAS guide sign was posted less than a decade ago in Cherokee County, GA at the intersection of East Cherokee Drive and Old GA 5.  An obvious lack of training is demonstrated here by the use of an incorrect font, shrinking to fit, wrong text height, "Ball Ground" spelled as one word, incorrect arrow types and width and incorrect signpost placement.  The sign was also moved from its prior position 200' south of the intersection.  Altogether this sign is garbage, but disasters like this are not unusual.

Rabun County, GA violated the MUTCD in a large number of ways with this sign.  Many others like it were placed around the county in the early 2000's.  The arrow placement is incorrect, spacing is incorrect, font is too narrow (Series B), mileage does not need decimal places or "mi" and a line is supposed to separate more than three destinations.  In addition, this sign includes irrelevant information: "Ga. Power Office".  While their heart is in the right place, the guide signs they placed need substantial corrections in an eventual replacement.  The use of 4" text is debatable in its usage, but in this instance is legible due to it being placed opposite a stop condition.

This now-removed sign in Pickens County, GA shows another guide sign that involved exactly zero reference to the MUTCD.  The use of "TO" for a town name, mileage in small text under a non-standard arrow was an improper design.  This county had very few guide signs as it was.

Linn County, OR is not as bad as the examples shown in Georgia, but the placement, fonts and arrows on these guide signs is unacceptable.  This sign is found at the northeast corner of Diamond Hill Road and Powerline Road.  While Oregon is more engineer-driven than many other states due to its few large counties, guide signs take a back seat.  Usually guide signs double as street name signs across the state and in this case the use of shrunk-to-fit 8" text, improper location of guide signs, arrow styles normally used in warning signs such as "Stop Ahead", To I-5 shown as I/5 and inadequate spacing demonstrates that the state should step in to fix this and that the federal government should be providing greater oversight in guide sign engineering practices (Image from Google Street View).


The role of states in the installation and maintenance of guide and route signs must change.  Essentially, the MUTCD itself might need to change in this regard by no longer permitting county, city or town governments to post any type of M series route sign or D series guide sign without state approval aside from street name signs limiting that authority to states, the proposed regional road authorities or the proposed statewide interagency cooperatives.  However, such drastic measures are not needed if the states just take responsibility for this roadway function on their own.  In states like Florida, guide and route signs are frequently replaced as part of resurfacing projects.  In other words, the failure of the counties to install and maintain these signs led to the state renovating not just the pavement but also the safety improvements (signs, guardrails, pavement markings) and guide signs.  This is why today FDOT standard guide and route signs can be found along rural county roads sporadically across the state.  After the tremendous failures by counties to properly maintain safety improvements and guide signs statewide, the state continues to take an increasingly large role in making sure that counties are doing their job.  The main guide sign duties the state would handle in regards to local roads would be:

  • Trailblazer signage directing traffic from connecting local roadways to the nearest state, U.S. or interstate highway
  • Directional, distance and combination destination/distance guide signage guiding traffic to cities, towns, substantial unincorporated communities and named junctions with major highways
  • Junction assemblies, directional route assemblies and destination/distance guide signs where connecting local highways meet state highways
  • Jurisdictional boundary and stream signs (I-2/I-3 signs)
  • Directional and distance signs of recreational use (brown signs)
  • Large freeway-mount guide signs along freeways and expressways that fall under local control

More details based on the list above will be described further.  Not listed here are county routes, which are described separately due to special conditions.  This is because county highways have been ill-defined and thus have problems deeper than signage.  In addition, not all states post county route signs thus this is a non-issue in those states.  However, in those states where county highways are either not specifically defined as routes and/or are not posted, trailblazers should be used far more extensively.  West Virginia in particular frequently posts trailblazers along its county road system to guide travelers to the nearest state highway.  Other states do not have any specific statewide system making numbered county roads the defacto road name having no use as an actual route further highlighting the need for trailblazers.  States that do not typically sign (or have) county routes (including state-owned county) on a statewide basis include:

  • Washington State
  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • Utah
  • Indiana
  • Oklahoma
  • Georgia
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee (1-2 counties are exceptions)
  • Oregon (a few counties are exceptions)
  • New England States (Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island)
  • Pennsylvania
  • Alaska

This trailblazer is posted at CR 19 and CR 28/7 in Grant County, WV.  While these county roads are state-owned, county routes are not as prominently posted as in other states nor as useful (as demonstrated by the fractional route numbers).  Thus, the state frequently posts trailblazers such as this at major county road intersections to guide travelers to the nearest primary state highway.  CR 19 provides access to a popular recreation area (Dolly Sods Wilderness) while Jordan Run Road serves as a cut-off between WV 42 and WV 55 west of Petersburg.

It is also important to note that state responsibility for guide signs on local roads could be instead transferred to regions if the Regional Roads Plan is adopted.  However, the state should still create guidelines for the regions to follow to establish uniformity in practice across the defined regions.  An example of this can be found in Iowa's MUTCD Supplement for Cities and Counties.  Iowa developed an MUTCD supplement that is specifically designed to aid local governments in proper traffic sign management, and with this they established guidelines for guide sign placement on local roads.  Iowa's policies are unfortunately atypical of most states.

Taylor County, FL posts guide and route signs along County Road 361.  In the 1970's, CR 361 was a secondary state road.  Counties across Florida have increasingly improved at guide and route signage due to cooperation with the state.  While not perfectly standard (the arrow under the route sign, primarily), the assembly is an example of what should be seen far more frequently along local roads, especially federal-aid collector and arterial roads maintained by local governments.  Image from Google Street View.

This image shows Sweeney Hollow Rd (CR 10) where the route changes at 23rd Avenue in Jefferson County, AL.  The signs in this image do not actually exist.  While the county does not normally post county route markers (despite the routes existing on paper), the lack of guide signs and trailblazers make these roads harder to follow.  Jefferson County has very few routes under state control, and this image here shows what is needed at the intersection.  At least posting the nearest towns (both found at the junction with AL 75) along with a trailblazer showing that either way reaches AL 75 would help.  Both roads are designated minor arterials.  This is where the state could and should step in.  (Image from Google Street View)

When county routes are not present or posted, then destination and distance signs should be more detailed and frequently posted with trailblazers to the nearest highway whenever possible.  This is a fabricated scene (signs do not actually exist) in Lumpkin County, GA on Cavender Creek Road approaching Copper Mines Rd.  County routes are not posted in Georgia, but the functional major collector route changes directions here.  (Image from Google Street View).

Guide signs are even more important than route signs as a need that should transfer to the state level on local roads.  The first consideration is that guide sign planning involves a wider scope than local governments can usually see.  Destinations often are located on roads that cross multiple jurisdictions, and local governments likely may not have a good understand of what roads are truly considered routes vs. truly local roads.  Worse is when the state posts a guide sign for a destination along a local road, which requires turns along local roads.  Often the local agency fails to post these turns making it easy for the driver to become lost looking for the destination.  While smart phones and GPS mapping have helped, they are prone to errors placing people on roads not safe for through traffic.  In addition, the driver should not be having to focus on these devices focusing instead on the road itself.  Also, most guide signs are not needed along the majority of local roads meaning that only those local roadways of greater importance that actually go somewhere need such signs.  Because of this, it is very possible that a state can absorb the cost into their existing sign program to begin installing guide signs and route marker assemblies (excluding county route markers) along local roads.

Longbranch Road (a major collector) approaches GA 52 and 115 in Lumpkin County, GA.  While it is a county road, it serves regional traffic and still needs such an assembly.  (Photo from Google Street View).

Duncan Bridge Road om Habersham County, GA connects US 23/GA 365 to Old US 23, a route with many towns displaced by GA 365 in the early 1980's.  GDOT has (or at least used to have) guide signs on current US 23 pointing to towns displaced along the old route, but no guide signs are placed showing which way to reach any of these towns at the junction with Old US 23.  This is an example of where the state should be posting guide signs along county roads to help drivers reach their destination.  (Photo from Google Street View).

Included with any county guide signs plans, the state should also review and update their own guide sign plans to coordinate with county roads and to replace out of date descriptions.  This is further discussed below in "Changes Needed on a State Level".


The following list of signs should be handled exclusively by the state and financed as part of the state sign budget:

US/Interstate/State Route Signs [M1-1 through M1-5]
  • Trailblazers [“TO” route] (M4-5, M6-1 through M6-7)
  • Junction Assemblies [M2-1, M2-2]
  • Directional route assemblies [M3-1 - M3-4, M4-1 - M4-6, M5-1, M5-2, M6-1 - M6-7]

Typical directional assembly

Destination Signs (D1 Series), Distance Signs (D2 Series) and Destination/Distance combinations
  • Green destination signs (D1 series)
  • Brown Recreational Destination Signs
  • Green Distance Signs (D2 Series)
  • Brown Recreational Distance Signs
  • Combination Destination/Distance Signs

Collection of guide signs clockwise from lower left: D1-3 green destination, D2-2 green distance, D1-2a green combination destination/distance and D1-1 brown recreational combination destination/distance sign.

Informational Signs (I Series)
  • State, county line, city limit, unincorporated community [I-2 signs]

Unincorporated community sign (I2)
  • Stream crossing (river, creek) [I-3 sign]

County line boundary sign (I2) and stream name sign (I3)

Large Freeway-Mount Guide Signs
  • This includes all freeway-mount guide signs as required along freeways and expressways otherwise maintained by the local government
  • Situations where local agencies maintain fully access-controlled freeways are relatively rare or follow short distances
  • These signs should be installed and maintained by the state even if the road is otherwise not state-controlled

The tremendous cost of installing and maintaining large expressway signs is excessively high even in high population counties and cities where some limited access roads may be county or city owned.  All limited access roads should be required to have these types of signs installed and maintained by the state even in the situation that a region otherwise maintains the roads.


Obviously states do not own county roads and municipal streets, so any signs installed should be coordinated with local regulations.  That does NOT mean these signs should not be there at all.  Obviously local governments have special concerns, however, such as guiding state highway traffic onto a substandard road or truck routes.  For this reason, guide signs plans should be created county-wide with counties (and the cities within) approving the plans and suggesting modifications.  Thus, the state is not planning or placing guide signs on local roads without the express consent and approval of local agencies.  Once both parties agree to and the local government signs off their approval on those signs, the state can then commence to install them at all necessary locations on off-system roads coordinating state and local roads where necessary.

In addition, local engineers or other concerned individuals may discover conditions where a guide sign is needed on either state or county roads.  They should notify the state's district engineer and/or traffic operations division of their concerns.  If the state approves of the change, but does not have funding for the signs the county or municipality should install the sign under the condition that the assembly meets state/MUTCD standards and file for a reimbursement which can be provided at a later date when funds are again available.   

Jay Bridge Road in Lumpkin County, GA is a minor collector road, but it could be signed as a county route.  Here it is fictionally "signed" as CR 866.  However, the roadway is substandard for most through traffic meaning that a truck restriction is necessary along the road.  While this demonstrates a county route, the concept is that in order for the state to have approval to sign this route in this fashion, the county requires that the route have a truck restriction.  These issues should be defined by the county as part of a state guide sign plan for the county (Modified photo from Google Street View).


County route signs will be discussed in depth on a future post including all the many issues with them, but in short several significant changes need to be made to county routes to allow them to be state-funded and better maintained.  Since local systems have varying levels of control by counties, there currently is no nationwide strategy for these roads, but this needs to be more clearly defined.  While effectively ANY county road number may have a number and often does, the purpose of a county route sign is not defined as such.  In fact, Section 2D-11 defines county routes signs as this: "If county road authorities elect to establish and identify a special system of important county roads, a statewide policy for such signing shall be established that includes a uniform numbering system to uniquely identify each route."  Clearly this is not being done, and in no case should any county route signs be erected anywhere unless they meet that criteria.

County junction assembly with interstate-style auxiliary signs changed to match county route sign colors (yellow on blue).

County routes should, in fact, be the same as a state route sign: a means to guide traffic to destinations best reached or not reachable following a state-owned roadway or to alert traffic as to which local roads serve a more regional traffic function.  Any other numbered county roads should be indicated with a low profile sign that is primarily for the use of maintenance crews, but the usage clearly defines which county routes actually go somewhere and which are just local streets.  This also means that counties do not select their own route system.  It means the state creates a numbering system that is used in every county and city/town meaning that county routes should be going through cities regardless of actual jurisdictions.  States that seem to best understand this policy are California, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Iowa.  States that routinely violate this policy include Alabama, Colorado and New Mexico.  In addition, if a county route system is established it should be FULLY SIGNED in EVERY COUNTY.  That means if counties are not willing to fund the signs, then the state should be responsible for these signs, period.  Counties should not be permitted to "opt out" as they have been allowed to do in many states including California, Florida, Michigan and Alabama where routes have specifically been established by the state to facilitate statewide travel on roads not otherwise state-owned.

Unfortunately, only a few states have ever enacted statewide programs for county route signs, and these programs have faltered either due to disinterest on a local level or because of a lack of adequate supervision on a state level.  Even worse, county route signs are often very substandard and very infrequent in maintenance.  Rarely do states ever post these signs since in most cases these are treated as an alternative to street name signs in places where road names still do not exist.  What is even worse is how county routes disappear upon entering municipalities making a county route difficult to follow.  In addition, some states have opted out of the use of county route signs or do not have a statewide program for these signs.  This means that roadways that appear on a map as a numbered road or previously functioned as a state highway have no posted route sign at all.  The result is public confusion as to where a road is and if a route is a highway or not.

Monroe County, TN used to post county route signs like this one (photo from 2006).  Inappropriate application coupled with using them in lieu of street names made these signs effectively useless.  The county recently switched to street name signs removing these shoddy made, non-compliant signs.

McMinn County, TN numbers every road in the county with a county route pentagon making the signs useless in defining routes as well as confusing.  The numbers do not relate to anything outside of the county, and the application of the signs is shoddy.  In addition, the use of signs in this manner does not comply with the proper use of county routes in Section 2D-11 meaning that these signs should be promptly removed and replaced with either street name signs or a low-profile route number sign that cannot be mistaken for a highway-type road.  (Google Street View image)


What will be discussed in depth on a future post is the need to create a new nationwide policy on which roads can be signed as a "county route" using the blue pentagon or similar type of sign.  The recommendations are as follows:
  • A ratio limit on which roads may be signed as county routes if no other limiting factor exists such as townships.  The ratio should be based on functional classification with an additional small percentage to cover a few local connecting roads ranging from 25-40% of total public roadway mileage.  
  • A priority of placing county routes along federal-aid eligible roads first, then minor collectors, then locals if the federal-aid eligible roadway is not routed along the shortest and best route
  • Numbering systems are assigned based strictly on a statewide uniform system instead of locally, and they are laid out as a functional highway system as if the road is a state highway
  • In states without townships, the posting of a county route has no other special status other than possible state-aid funding/maintenance of traffic control
  • In states with regional highway systems, the definition for "county road" changes to "regional road", and a different marker may be adopted for regional roads other than the standard blue pentagon
  • States finances and may also directly engineer and install county route signs in lieu of local governments
  • Other county roads must have posted route signs replaced with street name signs or lower-profile, lower cost county road number signs.  Examples in three different states are shown below.

North Carolina has a very effective means of defining local route numbers without using route markers.  While these are state-owned roads, they clearly define the route number without use of an actual route sign.  The roads seen here are functionally local roads.  Note that state policy both places the route visible from three sides on a block on the back of the stop sign as well as posting the numbers on street name signs.

While this is a ragged example, Georgia's vertical county route markers generally mounted on the back of Stop or Yield signs but occasionally standing alone clearly define ownership while not being confused as a main route.

Virginia's dogtag styled markers are designed to mark less important secondary state roads.  Secondary roads in Virginia are county-level equivalent in other states.  This is an example of a lower profile sign.  They are clear enough to be easily read and understood yet do not convey the same level of importance as a 24" x 24" route marker.


It is quite apparent in traveling in many states that guide sign management is poor.  Some of the issues noted were outdated or incorrect information, guide signs not being updated to reflect route realignments, sporadic use of different types of guidance, missing signs that do not get replaced, non-compliant signs and poor maintenance of guide signs as a whole.  Many local governments may have their own issues, but the states need to also raise their own standards if they are going to incorporate guide signs along locally-owned roads: especially since guide signs on local roads are more than likely to be overlooked if not properly planned and accounted for.  Perhaps if the state DOT transfers traffic control to a separate state agency or statewide cooperative that can better focus resources, guide sign management could be one of the things that improves.

To do this, the state should do a county-by-county analysis of guide signs to correct deficiencies and update conditions including on county roads and city/town streets.  The analysis should include:
  1. The development of clearly written state standards for guide signs if they do not otherwise exist (including an MUTCD supplement if possible).  See the Iowa example for an idea of how this could be done.
  2. A case-by-case analysis of each intersection on the arterial and collector road network to identify needed trailblazers, directional signage and distance signage with analysis done one county at a time.
  3. The analysis should include functionally local roads that operate as alternate routes for substandard or missing links.  It should also identify locations of importance including recreational or other uses that are located off of the collector route system as well as on.
  4. An analysis of unincorporated communities of significance, especially junctions of collector and arterial roadways, large census designated places and popular tourist areas.  These will be added to guide signs along county roads and along state highways, and community name signs added where they do not exist (see the "Cartecay Unincorporated" example above).
  5. Analysis of existing signs along state routes and local roads looking for relics, worn out signs, duplicates, unnecessary signs, misleading signs and incorrect information.  These should be identified followed by removal or correction.
  6. Adding all existing and approved future signs to a GIS database
  7. Meet with local officials on issues with guide signs, proposed changes, recommendations and to gain approval of guide sign plans with any changes from local officials.
  8. Analyze existing state and county routes to identify changes needed to either the state or county route system (if used) proposing modifications to coincide with guide sign plans.
  9. City, county and regional engineers may also periodically recommend additions and corrections to be funded and/or installed by state forces.

The route sign plan here highlights the need for a better organized approach to traffic control in addition to guide sign management.  It is very clear that handling traffic control from a nuclear local level is a very poor approach, and the nuclear approach (every local county and municipal agency working independently of the other) is blocking the ability to clearly define routes of regional importance off of the state highway system as well as provide consistent sign plans in other areas of traffic control.  If County X posts guide signs, but City A or County Y does not, how can travelers in County X reach their destination with those signs if the route continues with a couple turns after passing into County Y and City A to reach the next route?  County X is not likely to pay for guide signs in County Y and City A may not allow them to do so even if it is within County X.  Route signs are also immaterial since signed county roads do not always follow logical routes.

A state government or regional authority, however, could overlay all three and make sure that the major collector road through all three is able to install the guide signs so that they are useful from start to finish.  At present, posting a guide sign for a destination off-system is the equivalent of jumping into the sea to find a pearl.  Unless no turns are required, the final destination cannot be found in that manner.

The solutions for this of course go back to the original plans presented on this site.  Obviously the Regional Roads Plan and Consolidated Traffic Operations Plan both would be extremely beneficial in solving this problem.  The issue with guide signs along roads under local control is rooted in the fact that state authority for roads only covers a fraction of responsibility for arterial and collector routes.  When that division of responsibilities is overlaid or eliminated by having a state or regional agency handle at least part of the maintenance of those higher classification roads, the need for guide sign management on local roads is reduced to only a few cases.  Obviously some issues still exist such as guide signage for recreational areas and old highway alignments through small towns, but the frequency is reduced to only a few roads vs. thousands of miles of inadequately marked roadways.


In all, guide signs are an important yet neglected part of traffic control.  Guide signs when properly integrated with local highway systems can:
  • Better distribute traffic patterns allowing people to find the shortest and best route regardless of roadway ownership.  This is especially important in high traffic regions
  • Better lay out confusing routings of unnumbered highways where at least one or more turns is required
  • Keep cities and towns on the map by-passed by faster roads
  • Help tourists and non-local visitors find sites found along roads not on the state highway system
  • Help tourists and non-local visitors find their way back after visiting those sites
  • Help prevent cars and large trucks from accidentally driving on unsuitable roads
  • Help people find the best way in the face of many options (such as those that GPS provides)
  • Help drivers save time and gas thus reducing pollution and increasing productivity
This list of reasons are why guide signs are still important and must become a statewide and not just jurisdictional issue.  It does not matter who actually maintains the roads, it is the STATE'S responsibility to assure that finding your destination quickly and effectively can be done regardless of whether the state maintains 10% of the roads or 40%.  Local agencies have proven that they are not capable of consistently or effectively handling this responsibility, so this is a statewide matter that can easily and affordably be handled by state forces regardless of whether or not they assist in other areas of traffic control and road maintenance.

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