Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shoddy Signs Spotlight: City of Cullman, AL

Bad ideas are contagious, and this is definitely the case in Northern Alabama.  A previous post on Morgan County was, unfortunately, not the exception when highlighting the incompetence, negligence and total lack of concern for public safety demonstrated by local governments throughout the region.  Clear answers are still not available in how counties and cities/towns with a state-funded county engineer and traffic control specialist to assist them cannot seem to do a better job than this.  Do those public officials lack power or does the state not care what they are doing with the people's money?  Everything shown here in the City of Cullman is absolutely disgraceful.  It is the all-you-can-eat buffet of problems including:
  • Non-compliant devices routinely used
  • Stretched out and shrunk arrows, text and symbols
  • Poorly thought out custom signage
  • Nearly universally incorrect fonts in use
  • Custom signs used where an MUTCD compliant device is typically used
  • A complete lack of traffic studies

Just one of thousands of signs in Cullman City and County with non-standard fonts.  This one is on 8th St. in Cullman.  This and all photos on this post contributed by Free Brick Productions

So how do you fix this?  Clearly in this case local control is NOT the answer.  What is sad is that Cullman County was one of the 10 "captive counties" meaning that prior to 1979 the state handled traffic control matters in both the city and the county.  The county of Cullman is not great, but the city is MUCH worse.  This means that at one point that local residents could expect consistently MUTCD-compliant signage courtesy of the state of Alabama, but home rule won after a prolonged legislative battle.  As a result both the county and city have been free for 37 years to screw it up as they choose.  What's there today in Cullman is certainly consistent...consistently wrong.  Obviously we have a solution to the problem, and a contributor known by the pseudonym Free Brick Productions has provided a generous helping of criminal negligence to highlight why something needs to be done.  This is why a dubious spotlight is being cast on this shameful burg.  When someone dies because of faulty signage in the City of Cullman, we hope that the surviving family members find this site so that they know what to do.

8th St. & 2nd Ave.

Along Arnold St.

Wrong font, wrong dimensions, shrunk text and wrong heights.  Nothing is right about this sign at all!  2nd Ave. near Clark St.

2nd Ave. & 2nd St.  Were they really so lazy that they couldn't even set the text at the correct height?  It's one thing to use the wrong fonts, but this is pure laziness.

If you weren't looking up close, the slash for the No Parking is so thin you'd think they were permitting parking here.  1st Ave. & 6th St.

As you see here in the last five photos, the shape is compliant, but the signs are not.  It's not exactly clear what font is being used here, but in all cases the layout, text height and fonts are by definition not a traffic control device.  A savvy motorist pulled over for disobeying these signs could successfully argue in court that the devices did not comply with the MUTCD and were thus invalid.  A motorist or pedestrian injured because the devices were faulty could also successfully sue, although with these devices being permitted the injured party would most likely have to appeal out of county to succeed.  With the School sign in particular, it is also clear that they are in violation of reflectivity requirements in that the sign shown is clearly far past its service life.  Also note the incorrect post height on "DO NOT BLOCK DRIVE" where the clearance in an urban condition with potential pedestrian movements is supposed to be 7'.  That is definitely not 7 feet.

The important thing to note about Cullman County and the City of Cullman is that this is not in a rural area.  The county itself is part of the Birmingham combined statistical area and has a population of over 80,000 residents.  The city itself has a population of 14,000 residents, 17.5% of the county population.  Both have a reasonable tax base with interstate access, a couple major shopping centers and a growing population.  While the resources are likely insufficient to provide state-level traffic control, they could certainly do better than this!  Notice that home rule advocates never tell you something like this could happen.

This diagram on 8th St. could lead to death because it's so difficult to understand.  The text is too small, symbols are confusing and a black square does not even remotely symbolize a car.  At first glance it looked like dashed lines.  There is a standard device for "DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION" (R2-7), and it is universally understood.  The public does not need to know there is a sensor at the intersection, either.  Take this mess down, install a "DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION" sign and it works.

The public is not likely to recognize this as a traffic control device.  It's a regulation for a warning, the fonts are wrong and the information is excessive for the condition.  The sign following in the back is correct, however, except for the fonts.  1st Ave. SW

If any of you have read the proposals, you know that there is more than one solution.  However, in Alabama this remains a significant problem in many counties and not all proposals are workable based on the politics of the state.  Overall it is well-known that the state is having financial problems.  Furthermore, the way the laws were written involving revocation of captive counties it would be extremely difficult to reinstate state control to county roads in any of the 10 counties that were involved.  Despite Alabama's reputation for controlling counties, then-governor Fob James was absolutely insistent that counties could not rely on the state for road maintenance any longer.  As a fierce proponent of home rule, the fate of this county was sealed in early 1979.  

This is just one reason low bridges keep being hit by trucks leading to costly repairs that the public must pay for.  This low bridge and these signs are found on Sheraton Road.  The sign is too small (a non-compliant 24" x 24" in the first image), the clearance is not defined and the fonts are wrong and hard to read.  Signs like this are supposed to be 36" x 36" on conventional roads.  In addition, using W12-2 in advance of the condition would be far more likely to be noticed than a "LOW CLEARANCE" plaque.

The sign is mostly correct, but the 8 is unreadable from a distance since the font is a non-improved font not expected by motorists.   Note the obvious truck damage from years past.  Sign is located on Sheraton Road.

The simplest solution to fix these traffic sign issues is to merge traffic control responsibility between the city and the county.  Should the county be operating on skeleton funds so that the largest municipality in the county can waste money on garbage like this?  Combining the two together would probably mean better traffic control standards for both the city and the county.  It would not be a perfect solution, but this is one of the major problems with local control is that cities drain resources from the county while inversely cities are too small to provide high-quality technical services.  If counties and municipalities as a rule shared traffic control services, issues like this would be rarer.  In counties with few municipalities roadway standards are typically much better.  It also helps in a joint venture that there are more people involved making sure that more people are there to speak up if things are not being done the right way.  However, the simplest solution is not the best solution seeing that neither agency is doing a good job.

Childhaven Road northbound.  It's not that the condition here is exactly wrong, but it's the way it's done.  "Church" is no longer an official device.  It was once in the MUTCD W39-3, but was removed decades ago.  "Hidden Drive" calls for "Hill Blocks View" with an advisory.  Of course, those details ignore that the borders, fonts, dimensions and use of "CHURCH" as a supplemental plaque further demonstrate abject laziness.

What's right here does not justify what's wrong.  The warning device is poorly placed and both the street name sign and warning sign have incorrect fonts.  Most likely the Stop sign is correct due to being bulk-ordered from a contractor in lieu of being made in-house.  All of these signs here highlight why in-house sign production should be heavily scrutinized and not allowed unless the state has approved the local agency to do this work.

Reflectivity requirements were clearly ignored in this very bad recycling job of an old "TRUCK ROUTE" sign on 8th St.  

This is not how trailblazers are done.  The only thing correct here is the state shape, and even that is not technically correct since this leads to U.S. 31, NOT AL 31.  State and U.S. routes in Alabama do not share the same number like most other states.  The arrow is not correct, font is wrong and there is no "TO" (M4-5) sign on top.  While a lack of trailblazers is a problem, this half-hearted effort does not deserve any praise.  Sign is located on Golf Course Road.

Do they really think nobody would ever notice how wrong this is?  It has been passed around various forums for how ridiculous it looks, and it is assemblies like this that should result in a loss of funding for localities who do stuff like this.  Better yet, how has the city been allowed to put something like this along a state road?  This is on U.S. 278 (3rd St.)  If nothing else this is an example of why cities and towns should not be responsible for traffic control along state roads even if the state is paying them to do it on their behalf.


The best solution, however, is to stop thinking locally and start thinking regionally.  Three possible solutions are available and two likely will not require state government if each partner is willing to share the cost.  The first two options include regional roads and/or a traffic control cooperative.  The second is the statewide cooperative model: the most effective plan, but it would require the state legislature to approve.

This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Unless this is the United Kingdom, they are literally sanctioning drivers to drive head-on into traffic in the wrong lane.  While the arrows, text and color are also wrong, this is a glaring and extreme error in judgment.  This is on 3rd Ave. & 4th St., but others of this same messed up sign were observed in various locations across the city.

Regulation or warning?  There seems to be some confusion in this city.  4th St. & 6th Ave.

Non-standard speed limit signs are a standard situation in Cullman.  Sign is located on Main Ave.

The regional roads approach would combine maintenance in the immediate area under the planning jurisdiction of North-Central Alabama Regional Council of Governments.  That area is a mere three counties: Lawrence, Cullman and Morgan.  Two of those are former captive counties and Morgan was highlighted for its issues.  This approach would not be sufficient for a traffic control cooperative, but if all three counties and cities within combined road maintenance along with all three county engineers it would provide resources for a fourth: a PTOE that could oversee traffic control while otherwise streamlining costs.  All three counties in their unincorporated areas have close to 150,000 residents and already partner with several towns.  It is a sensible solution that would at the very least be a good pilot project to prove that regional road maintenance is a better option in North Alabama.

Stretched arrow, wrong fonts.  Not the worst example, but a demonstration that local forces are doing the bare minimum to get by in terms of designing traffic control devices.

Irrelevant and unexpected in this location nagging motorists about the local speed trap.  Schwann Avenue & Oak Drive.  

Illegible at almost any speed.  Convent Road.

Pretty self-explanatory in what's wrong here with the sign itself.  What's also wrong is that this is a 90 degree reverse turn to the LEFT meaning that the use of W1-5R (winding road to the right) is absolutely WRONG.  The correct sign here would be W1-3L.  This is why people tend to not take traffic control devices seriously.   When the public cannot rely on their accuracy it is safer not to have them at all.  Oak Dr westbound.

The traffic control cooperative is a bit more complicated in that it requires an operations fee due to it operating separately from the county road systems.  For that reason, the regional planning area would need to be much larger thus would be best when combined with the five counties of NW Alabama Council of Local Governments.  Assuming it costs $400,000 per year and all counties and cities were participating, the operations fee would cost $12,000 per year even while the county would have to contribute $56,000 per year.  Just the cost of the PTOE alone would probably run $2,391 for the city and $11,000 for the county.  This is where state-aid for this purpose would help.

I smell hypocrisy here.  They can't follow the law in designing MUTCD-compliant traffic control devices, but they take at least two weeks wages at full-time minimum wage (what a high percentage of Cullman County's residents earn) for violating these trash signs?  They can't afford to follow the law themselves, but they then expect the people that live here to follow the law.  Oak Dr. westbound.

The last would be for the state legislature to simply understand that local governments in Alabama are too small to be able to supervise road maintenance effectively on their own.  It was clear that standards were more consistent when the state managed the captive counties.  While a return to the captive model is not likely, creating a statewide cooperate agency with the state government providing matching funds (covering operations fees) with every partner county and city would be an ideal approach.  Counties and cities like Cullman could easily join with no up front costs resulting in the issues you see in Cullman greatly improving.
By removing direct traffic control responsibility from the local governments and putting it on a level where professional standards can always be applied, shoddy signs like these would become a rarity.  Since to many the last option, the Statewide Cooperative Plan sounds like gibberish, we should give it a name.  We should call it the Alabama Local Roads Commission.  The primary duty of the Alabama Local Roads Commission is to consolidate all traffic control responsibility to a statewide commission jointly owned by all the counties and cities in the state.  This means that instead of the city or county managing traffic control you have a central unit that oversees, purchases, distributes and produces traffic control devices on behalf of the state's counties, cities and towns.  The cooperative model does not mean ownership, thus local governments including Cullman can still set their own speed limits and traffic ordinances such as truck restrictions.  The Local Roads Commission also provides traffic engineering services and, if necessary, provides full road maintenance.  According to the plan that was discussed, more populous counties like Cullman would have either just traffic control handled by the commission or a farm-to-market system directly administered by the Commission with other streets remaining local.  However, traffic control duties would universally transfer to the Commission thus neither the city or county would be directly responsible for these (terrible) signs.  Cullman City and County under this plan could still finance their own road projects, construct roads but routine maintenance either in the form of traffic control or, if chosen, comprehensive road maintenance would transfer to the Alabama Local Roads Commission.  Funding would come from a pooling of resources on a local level to make this possible coupled with state-aid funding.

...or a rock will fall out of the sky?  I guess the way to make up for a completely unacceptable use of sign shapes, fonts and dimensions is to add an exclamation point...because a W3-5 sign is just absolutely budget busting!!  This is another stinker in the trashfest known as Oak Drive.

These are not ads for Burma Shave, so what's with the row of yellow rectangles here on Oak Drive?  What is AHEAD is nothing but trouble for motorists trying to navigate the jungle of a clearly corrupt city employees who put public safety last.

And then there's this on Oak Drive.  What is right with this?  Answer: nothing.  A T-intersection sign (W2-4) is incorrectly marking what requires a W2-2 condition.  "Hidden Drive" is not a standard device for this condition and "SLOW" is not an advisory speed.  Street view shows this was a recent install. What should be here is shown below:

If the condition above was corrected, the assembly would look like this.  The advisory speed would need to be determined in a traffic study of the area, but this is a far more compliant condition.  The W2-4 is replaced with W2-2, "Hill Blocks View" (W7-6) replaces "Hidden Drive" and "SLOW" is replaced with an actual advisory speed (although the speed limit of 25 MPH is probably slow enough!).  The post height is also corrected.

The issues here with Cullman are extreme and almost 95% in violation of the MUTCD if not for the Stop signs.  It is the worst case that we have ever seen.  In this case, ALDOT should mandate that all non-compliant devices be replaced as-is at the expense of the city or county that installed them in order to receive any more state-funding including the cost of traffic studies.  However, Cullman once again proves that the root of the problem is entrusting something as technical as traffic control planning, a position that typically requires a specialized PTOE license, to local agencies with nobody qualified to handle that responsibility with very little training and funding provided to whoever in the city makes these awful signs.  This is not something that local agencies should be expected to do as a matter of principle unless they are a very large population county with a high level of funding and responsibility.

Can you read that text below?  Pretty hard isn't it?  BTW, "Right Turn Only" is usually displayed with this nifty sign called R3-5R.  Still on Oak Drive hoping to arrive alive.

Close, but no cigar on Stadium Drive.

Did they mean Childhazard?  Because with these signs on the roads it most certainly is one!  2nd Avenue & 13th St.

At the very least, Cullman should not be maintaining their own traffic signs anymore.  Every city, including Cullman, has options if they will make the effort by joining forces with their surrounding county and likewise if the county cannot handle it they could join with other counties.  The main thing that Cullman proves is that local control of traffic control in a small population geographic area is an antiquated and ineffective approach that often produces trash like this.  Hopefully this latest example once again proves that a few good counties, cities and towns do not mean that a broad home rule brush can be used to create a masterpiece.  Cullman residents are left wanting with these inexcusable devices, but is anyone willing to stand up and change this?

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