Friday, April 21, 2017

Shoddy Signs Spotlight: Rabun County, GA

The funny thing about non-compliance issues with traffic signs is that it is a problem that is hiding in plain sight.  Somehow, a serious safety issue just does not get the attention it deserves: perhaps because not enough people are paying attention or the problem is hidden because it looks professional.  In these cases with local agency issues, the signs themselves may be MUTCD compliant, but the engineering work is sloppy or non-existent and application sporadic.  In other cases, the engineering may be correct but the traffic signs are non-compliant with numerous issues with sign condition, fonts, post height and symbol design.  Usually, shoddy traffic engineering goes together with shoddy signage and pavement markings, suggesting a disinvestment by that agency in traffic safety and traffic control.  While most common in rural areas, it is as much of an urban problem as it is a rural problem especially in smaller municipalities carved out of larger urban counties.


While not the most egregious example, the design of these signs presents a problem to drivers approaching the intersection in a curve.  It implies that either way is through traffic instead of the curve to the left despite the fact the left arrow is larger.  The advisory sign is also not properly designed although not as bad as some other examples around the county.  Sign is located on Old U.S. 441 north of Lake Rabun Road south of Lakemont.

Sometimes, however, there are local agencies who go out on a limb and handle their assigned duty so incorrectly that photos do them plenty of justice.  We posted a golden example of this with the disgraceful practices of Cullman, AL showcased.  These are agencies that clearly have neither guidance nor will to follow proper roadway practices, and they get away with it largely because of the laissez-faire attitudes of state governments who will not penalize non-compliance possibly due to the fact that they are not even managing their own work well.  Legally their hands are also tied because of home rule laws preventing any significant interference thus there is no such thing as checks and balances in traffic engineering.  GDOT is certainly a state with its own issues with managing traffic control, so it is no surprise that Rabun County, GA was one of the latest counties to abuse their authority to maintain traffic control devices.


Prior to the late 2000's, speed limit signs were standard design.  Then this happened.  Sign is located on Old U.S. 441 southbound.

Rabun County is a mountainous county with just under 17,000 residents.  It is well known as a quasi-rural county that is also a popular weekend home destination for wealthy residents in places like Atlanta, Charlotte and parts of Florida and is also a popular retirement destination.  Because of this, the county has far more houses than it has permanent residents.  Located along the Blue Ridge Plateau, the county has some of the most stunning scenery in the state with many impressive waterfalls, beautiful forests, and a rugged landscape that is more typical of Western North Carolina or New England than the Georgia Piedmont attracting large volumes of non-local traffic during sunny weekends, summer months and holidays.  It is also a county with many dangerous roads due to abundant steep grades, sharp curves and dangerous intersections.  For this reason, the abject failure of either the state or the county to provide high quality, properly engineered traffic signs is a travesty.  The recent efforts by the county show a very half-hearted effort that calls for immediate correction.  Like most counties in Georgia, it also appears that there has never been a proper traffic study on all but a couple of these roads under local control.



If any sign highlights the inexperienced employees at Rabun County's road department, it is this sign.  This confusing mess of a sign is easily demonstrated with two MUTCD signs: a Hill (W11-7) sign and a Right Turn (W1-1R) with a 30 MPH advisory speed.  A truck advisory posted here is already too late if this condition is this hazardous!  If trucks need to be aware, it is at the beginning of the road.  The diagram above better explains this.  This wordy sign might look important, but it is dangerously non-compliant, crams a ton of information into a single sign and should be removed as quickly as possible.  If the curve really is that hazardous, the best thing they could do is install chevrons in the curve ahead with flashing lights to warn drivers if they are approaching too quickly.  These situations do not happen when traffic control is handled by qualified employees under adequate supervision and funding levels are adequate.  Apologies for the antenna in the left side of the photo.



Here is the curve described in the sign above.  While it is indeed mountainous in the location, the hazard appears to be overstated.  This is where a proper traffic study of this road would have been very useful, but the state's program to correct issues on roads like this did not have sufficient funding to correct problems like that.

Rabun County is not quite as bad as the Cullman example in that there were at least some efforts to follow standard practices.  The county uses approved fonts, for instance, though the application of those fonts is usually incorrect.  The county also partnered recently with GDOT to have four county roads re-engineered for proper signage with federal-funded replacements meaning that those roads are momentarily no longer presenting an issue until further maintenance is needed.  It also does not mean that the problems that do exist are not just as glaring and extreme on every other road.   


The sign shown here was one of the signs on Bridge Creek Road with a completely unacceptable advisory speed.  The condition was corrected when GDOT partnered with a private firm to re-engineer the warning signs on this road, but this was one of only four roads to receive this work.  Other county roads still contain massive errors like this.

The solution for this problem is not so simple.  Even if these comically bad signs are all corrected, the traffic engineering work is sloppy at best.  It is unfortunately typical that signs in mountainous areas are very inconsistent due to the lack of any consistent policy nationwide for curve warning, chevron and arrow signs.  To make matters worse, those roads that Rabun County contracted to GDOT for help on used the same engineering practices they used in the Piedmont meaning they were extremely oversigned: an issue that will also worsen the issues with maintenance.  This oversigning is partly due to GDOT lacking any internal policy where curve warning signs in mountainous terrain may only be posted when a speed reduction is required.  In fact, those four roads that were re-engineered have far more signs than the county has resources to maintain them.  For example, in a series of S-curves on Warwoman Road, nearly continuous chevrons were posted in lieu of just lowering the speed limit along that stretch so that they would not be required.


Neon non-compliance.  A "SLOW" sign, long removed from the MUTCD, is placed in neon colors (pedestrian?) with a Blind Drive sign.  This was also on Bridge Creek Road, so it has likely been corrected but may exist in a similar condition elsewhere in the county.


Design fail here on Black Rock Mountain Road, the county-maintained spur to Black Rock Mountain State Park.  Neither the advisory nor curve sign are correctly designed on a post about 2' off the ground.

GDOT's lack of direct funding or oversight of local traffic control work also poses a problem.  In all, Rabun County's terrain mainly calls for engineering corrections only on these longer and more heavily traveled mountain roads where other less important roads with continuous hairpin curves can be corrected by either setting the speed limit to match the determined advisory speed for a majority of curves or in the case of residential roads not posting these signs at all.

DIRECTIONAL CONFUSION: MISGUIDED GUIDE SIGNS

Another issue are the county's guide signs.  Many important attractions and small towns are found off the state highway system especially in the southwestern part of the county, so posting guide signs for the purpose of tourism is of heightened importance.  The state marks these attractions only along US 441 south of Clayton, but does not usually mark them elsewhere.  However, the county enacted their own guide sign program within the last 10-15 years posting guide signs at major intersections throughout the county.  The problem is that these were poorly planned and designed guide signs that clearly were not authorized by a traffic engineer, are poorly laid out and do not reflect the shortest and best routes.  While their heart was in the right place, this is something that the state should have provided assistance with and/or a PTOE should have planned or reviewed.  All of these guide signs should have been coordinated with state roads, and if these roads had proper warning signs, regulatory signs and truck restrictions posted on the most mountainous roads (such as Lake Rabun Road), the state could have even routed through traffic along some of these roads as the shortest and best route.  For example, traffic coming from Helen along GA 197 could use a combination of Burton Dam Road, Bridge Creek Road and Old US Hwy 441 as a shorter and less winding route to reach Tiger and Clayton, but currently traffic is routed along the windier and longer GA 197 and US 76 simply because the better route is under local jurisdiction.


Signage on Germany Road at Black Rock Mountain Road has the correct colors and fonts, but it has poor design with arrows in the wrong place, too small to see and an improper application of destinations.  "Mtn City" does not need "GA" (it is in the same state), Black Rock Mtn should have "State Park" spelled out and on a brown sign and the directional "N" is not needed with US 441.  The borders are also incorrect.


Another guide sign posted on Blue Ridge Gap Road at Wolffork Road further demonstrates the issues with these signs.  The layout is completely wrong.  The image below shows how the sign should preferably appear.


While 6" text would be ideal on this sign above (4" is used like the original sign), the design is far closer to MUTCD standards than the sign in the image above.  In addition, a major destination is added for northbound traffic that is missing from the current sign considering that prevailing traffic is going northbound on US 441.

Counties like Rabun County are important, because they dispel the myth that local roads do not need the same effort as the state because local traffic "knows the roads".  The problem is that this area frequently has lots of traffic from people who are not from the area who are exploring the back roads looking for the many lakes, waterfalls, recreation areas, property for sale and/or visiting historic areas such as Lakemont.  This means that both the state and the county have a responsibility to provide a consistent driving experience both on the state highway system and off the state highway system.  Considering that the county overall does an acceptable job in other areas of road maintenance with smooth, reasonably well-built roads, the solution clearly will require a cooperative effort with resources outside of the county.  

ECONOMIC REALITIES: RABUN NEEDS TO LOOK OUTSIDE THE COUNTY FOR HELP

While the local government can theoretically fix the problem on its own, the reality is that Rabun County is a low population county.  Because of this, any local effort would take an excessive chunk of the budget with not enough trained employees to assure that it is being handled correctly and a very large tab for engineering studies and consultants.  One potential solution that could be pursued is hiring an IMSA-certified traffic control technician sponsored by a PE, but that PE would likely operate outside the county thus still requiring a regional effort.  That is by no means a guaranteed solution, but it would help with the most glaring issues.


For this reason, it would be best for the county if they would consider becoming one of the pioneers in pursuing a regional traffic control plan.  The first step the county could take is to partner with a neighboring county by merging their traffic control units.  It just so happens that Rabun County borders Habersham County, a county with a traffic engineer who appears to be especially knowledgeable about traffic control and has invested heavily in the county's signs.  Rabun County could agree to share the cost of funding the county engineer based on proportion of population to the population of both counties combined (meaning Rabun County would cover 27% of the cost).  The cost savings for Habersham could be used for Habersham to help fund initial traffic studies for Rabun with the difference or to furnish them with traffic control devices.  This would cost far less than the county attempting to figure this out on their own.  Consider how this would work if the two counties combined costs:

  • Habersham County has a population of 43,752 (2014)
  • Rabun County has a population of 16,243 (2014)
  • The combined populations of both counties is 59,995
  • Thus Rabun County's population ratio divided by the combined population is 27%

Under this combined effort, Rabun County could then provide a budget for the county engineer to work with allowing him the authority to oversee county traffic control, combine purchases, use a single sign shop for both counties and share costs.  It would be a win-win for both counties.  Habersham County saves money on a traffic engineer in turn for Rabun County receiving better supervision for a critical county service.  If the county engineer's salary is, for example, $85,000 a year then Rabun County contributes $22,950 in turn for Habersham providing an equivalent sum in traffic studies, traffic signs and pavement markings.



More proof that these are not isolated incidences of weird, shabby signs.  The 35 MPH advisory is at least correctly sized on the second sign, but the "ADVISORY" information is redundant.  Perhaps a pedestrian crossing sign might be more appropriate as this second sign is entering the village of Lakemont.


Corrected since this photo, but also redundant (Bridge Creek Road)

LARGER GOALS

The combination of the two county's traffic control units and engineering units should not be where it stops. While the combination will result in better roads and huge cost savings for both counties, no special reason exists that it has to end with two counties.  If the fusion of two counties for roads is successful, then the two agencies should then try to recruit other counties in the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission boundaries to join them starting with counties that are bordered by both counties.  This means first Towns and Stephens Counties.  Like Rabun, neither county has a traffic engineer hired and neither have the resources to provide adequate traffic control services on their own.  Before this is done, however, both Rabun and Habersham should turn to the cities within to also combine traffic control with the counties.  If those counties and cities agree to join then they can attempt to recruit more adjoining counties and cities within such as White, Banks, Franklin and even Hall County.


Beautiful scenery surrounds this atrocious assembly with the completely unnecessary "CAUTION" plaque (a W16-8 street name would be better), improperly sized W2-1 and advisory speed on an incorrectly sized 24" x 18" blank. 

The idea here is that because most of the counties are incapable of adequately providing these specific public services to proper levels on their own, they begin to form a regional highway system starting with traffic control.  Obviously, organic growth of a regional highway system is a fertile ground to test regional transportation solutions.  It is not a permanent solution, but it is necessary to prove to state leaders that combining specific roadway functions without transferring ownership to a larger agency could be successful.  If no counties are willing to pioneer the concept, then the state is also not likely to pursue it.


Limited Sight Distance was removed from the MUTCD in 1988, but the design is what makes this worse.  It is hard to read from any distance and is proportioned strangely.

Let us consider that Rabun County is now formed into what is now known as the (entirely fictional) Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative.  The Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative is now an agency spanning seven counties.  We will assume in this instance that Hall County declined.  The new cooperative has the following duties:

  • Traffic Engineering
    • Each partner county pays a percentage of the salaries of all staff engineers based on the ratio of the county population divided by the population of all member counties combined
    • In turn, each partner county receives engineering services or safety improvements based on need
      • Note that the Rabun-Habersham exchange model will not work with more than two partners
      • Services rendered will be considered free based on the operations costs, but costs for materials must be funded by each member jurisdiction
    • Additional traffic engineers or technicians hired must be agreed upon by all parties
  • Traffic Control
    • All purchases are combined for all traffic sign materials, pavement markings and guardrails
    • A central sign shop is developed for in-house materials
      • This is needed primarily for the production of custom signs including street name signs, guide signs and special warning/regulatory signs
      • Not all traffic control devices will be produced in-house
    • The centralized traffic engineering unit supervises all installation and maintenance of traffic control devices
    • Each member agency receives in traffic control what they put into it.  
      • This means that if Rabun County budgets a retainer $10,000 in a single year for traffic signs and pavement markings, the central traffic control unit will be permitted to spend that much in Rabun County
      • Anything not spent in that year will be rolled over into next year's budget for that agency
  • Leadership
    • A committee is formed out of existing elected leaders (one from each county and city participating) that oversees the activities and budget of the local roads cooperative
    • The committee supervises engineers and other employees in the cooperative making the final decisions on hiring, firing, policies and standards
    • The committee meets jointly per request of committee members

As to the combined population and ratios for the Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative, here is how it breaks down:

  1. Seven counties (including cities) with a combined population of 165,102
    • The combined counties have changed the population characteristics for road funding from a series of rural counties to that of a small urban county such as adjacent Hall County
    • This means that the resources could then be distributed like a more urbanized county
  2. Very low payment ratios required of each county since they have similar population characteristics
    • Habersham, the highest in population, would be required to pay 26.5% of the cost for a traffic engineering unit vs. 100% of the cost now for their own county
    • Towns, the lowest in population, would be required to pay 6.7% of the cost for a traffic engineering unit for which they currently have none
    • If three engineers were hired at $100,000 a piece, the cost for Habersham would be likely less than the cost for one full-time engineer while for Towns County would be $20,100.  For Towns County, this is the equivalent to one full-time employee earning $9.66/hour.  

So we can assume now that the Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative is a roaring success.  Everyone is happy with the results, and road maintenance in the boundaries of the cooperative is noticeably better than before and is also better than surrounding counties.  To many, this would be a place to stop but informal committees like this have a way of falling apart.  While it may be sunshine today, a dispute between two county commissioners could unravel the entire structure tomorrow.  This is why this strategy should be considered a pilot project lasting no more than five years.  If the cooperative plan is successful, the next step should be to put it in state law letting the legislature further define the duties, responsibility, funding and organization of a local cooperative.  Having the state involved also opens the opportunity for state funding for each unit.


Another badly designed sign on Black Mountain State Park Road.

INCORPORATION INTO A REGIONAL OR STATEWIDE COOPERATIVE PLAN

At this point, the state legislature has taken notice of the Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative and is impressed at how successful it works vs. the separate county road systems.  The state then takes one of two tactics: expands the concept statewide transforming the regional cooperative into a statewide cooperative or it creates other regions around the state including an expanded and reconfigured Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative.  With the state mandating that each county becomes part of a cooperative, it suddenly becomes even cheaper and easier for the cooperative to afford high quality road maintenance.  The newly drawn region, however, changes in characteristics with Franklin departing for a new region while three new counties are tacked onto the existing cooperative.  In all, this fantasy scenario points out that that when a county does not have what it needs that combining operations with adjacent counties is a cost-effective way to eliminate that problem.

THE BEST SOLUTION FOR RABUN COUNTY

In this scenario that was presented, what is clear is that the county is not doing their job correctly and that existing leadership being made aware of the problem is neither a guarantee that anything will be done about it nor is it an effective way to fix the problem.  While the issues are worse today, they only became obvious because a poorly funded, poorly trained and poorly staffed county agency attempted a greater effort than in the past without the management, training or experience necessary to do it the right way.  It was not exactly better before.  The difference in the past was that the county simply lacked traffic control on almost any roads.  Even if everything existing today was replaced in kind with the right materials, it would still be wrong because the engineering problems would not be fixed.  It is simply not an area that is their expertise, and the situation was worse because they did the work themselves without the knowledge on how to properly design traffic control devices rather than just purchase materials from a proper vendor.  They certainly saved money by doing it themselves, but the resulting signs were disastrously non-compliant.

For this reason, the only economical solution is to stop trying to do it themselves.  Because of the small population of the county, the county's options to fix traffic control issues is twofold:
  • Transfer the responsibility to GDOT (not currently offered to any county or city)
  • Combine resources with one or more counties so that trained staff and adequate resources are available to do what Rabun County cannot seem to handle (starting with Habersham County)
Hiring a private engineering firm may also be a consideration, but the costs involved would probably be excessive for meeting those goals.  The use of private firms for public roads should be something brokered by the state on behalf of the counties, and this is explained in the Private Option of the Statewide Cooperative Plan.



Improperly designed "Narrow Bridge" sign with dangerous guardrails and no object markers posted on a very narrow bridge.

Creating regional traffic control solutions need to become common discussion around Georgia as a means to assure that public safety is treated as something of high importance.  With such a high number of counties, relying on county government is not an effective solution to this problem as this post demonstrates.  Exposure of the problem may lead to some small changes, but they would not be enough to correct the overall situation.  The overall situation is a lack of coordination among properly trained employees, and a lack of economies of scale needed to make sure the most can be done with the least resources.  The better solution is to stop looking within for the answers when it involves rural counties such as Rabun and to start looking at ways of handing this responsibility to qualified professionals.

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