Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Guide Sign Issues: The GPS Debate and New Strategies To Correct Guide Sign Deficiencies

It seems that a tremendous misunderstanding has happened in what the purpose of guide signs are.  For one, they are not just there as a poor man's GPS.  They are designed to promote a road: to indicate clearly to the public what is the best route to a location regardless of the many options available.  This promotion is not just important for a guidance standpoint.  Cities and towns stand to gain or lose business by their presence on a directional sign, and not having any signage at all can be a safety issue: especially if the only option to a point of interest is a hazardous road with no safe place to turn around.  Finding your way around is a split second decision if you do not know the area.  Thus, the need for these signs has not passed.

Traveling along US 411 in Alabama, a junction with Cherokee CR 29 lacks the first sign you see here.  Once a state route, these two communities along CR 29 have dried up in recent years helped along by the lack of through traffic.  Perhaps if this road were promoted as not only a shortcut to Piedmont, but also these other communities shown here it would better distribute traffic, increase business along the road, and allow a major county highway to serve its intended highway purpose.  However, the sign you see here is considerably large at 7.5' x 3.5' thus a cost that is difficult to factor into a normal budget. 

Guide signs (directions, distance and route signs) have taken a back seat in recent years as federal funding has been made widely available only for warning and regulatory signs while states have viewed guide signs as less important than in the past due to GPS systems that are now easily available.  While they may be partially right, the concept of guide signs is to define routes, not just to show drivers how to get somewhere.  Defining a route means that an expert (engineer or technician) has determined the best way to go based on:

  • Road quality (width, pavement, geometry)
  • Road conditions (speed limits, signals, curves)
    • Some roadways are unsuitable, because they lack a signal in a high traffic area making left turns more hazardous than a longer way
  • Roadway classification (arterial, collector)
    • Most functionally local roads do not reach any cities or towns and do not justify signage
    • Exceptions exist for posting guide signs on a functionally local roads where it involves towns/unincorporated communities, points of interest, or alternate routes when the primary routing it substandard
  • Obstacles (weight limits, height limits, pedestrian traffic, business districts, residential areas)
  • Shortest and best route (not always based on state routes)
  • Roadway designation (guide signs line up with route designation)
  • Combination of roads (single route has overlaps with other major roads or highways) 
    • Note that "route" refers to both numbered and unnumbered routes based on destinations

GPS cannot always determine those conditions.  GPS looks at lines on a map and chooses a way based on distance.  Although items on the list can be programmed in, they are not always indicative of conditions in the field.  Here are some things to remember about GPS before deciding that all the guide signs should just be removed:

  1. GPS is not always correct
  2. GPS has led large trucks down roads with unsuitable conditions including:
    • Substandard bridges that collapsed under the weight of the truck
    • Low overpasses that caused trucks to hit the bridge and get stuck
    • Roads that are too narrow with too sharp of curves for trucks to navigate where trucks got stuck or wrecked
  3. GPS has led cars to roads that were:
    • Unpaved
    • Ended in water such as a boat ramp, ford or canal
    • Came to a dead end when the map showed the road as connecting
    • The road did not actually exist
  4. GPS looks for the shortest route, which is not always the most suitable route.  It leads traffic onto roads that were never designed for through traffic and are not funded at a level to handle high traffic volumes.
  5. GPS is not a substitute for posting information that should be readily available to the roadway users
  6. Most of all, GPS serves as a distraction to drivers who should be focusing on the road itself.
    • Attempting to navigate GPS maps because a necessary directional guide sign or route sign is not available is not acceptable and leads to distracted driving, thus accidents
    • Distracted driving is already a crisis in this country, and it is made worse when drivers are looking at their GPS for directions in hazardous conditions

Virginia clearly posts truck warnings or restrictions ahead of the condition.  Note the "GPS Routing Is Not Advised" plaques that prove that trucks have ignored these conditions before showing the flaws of GPS.

Seeing that this is true, it is NOT a valid argument to call guide signs outmoded because of GPS.  Guide signs are there to define routes according to the list above.  That means either highways or the BEST route to a city/town, nearest highway, park, historical site or public facility.  This includes not just state highways, but also local roads since all these factors regarding local roads are true:
  1. Local roads may actually be highways that are simply not maintained by the state
    • Nationally, most states maintain primarily roadways that are considered arterial routes of statewide importance
    • Collectors and many urban arterials are increasingly becoming the sole responsibility of local governments who are not structured in a way to manage higher classification roadways
    • This means many local roadways may actually carry highway traffic over long distances even though they are not the responsibility of the state DOT
  2. Landmarks, parks, recreation areas and other points of interest are often not located on the state highway system
    • Parks and facilities off-system often require many additional turns to reach.  These turns are not always signed, especially when the turn that is required is along a local road.
  3. Cities and towns are often located at a point just off of a state route or are not situated along a state route.  This is increasingly true as states continue to reduce their mileage.
    • Cities and towns are often found on old highway alignments and along major county roads in some cases as much as 10 miles from the nearest state highway
    • The trend of cities and towns removing highways through their core has resulted in poor guide signage through the cities as both states and counties rely on the municipality to define truck routes and destinations beyond the city and town itself
  4. The shortest and best route may actually be along a local road as opposed to a state road.  
    • The location of state routes is often politically motivated and may follow convoluted routes where a shorter, faster, and better constructed road may actually be locally-owned
    • Nonetheless, the state will typically avoid guiding traffic onto a local road due to the following reasons:
      • A lack of guide signs at a junction of two local roads where a turn is required to reach a destination
      • A lack of guide signs where a local highway approaches a state route.
      • Because the roadway itself is not maintained to suitable standards (inadequate traffic control or pavement markings)
      • Because the roadway has design characteristics not suitable to through traffic (this is the only justifiable reason).
  5. Local highways may go long distances before connecting to another state highway.  This is common in many western states where state control ratios are often less than 10% and distances between developed areas are further.

Here is an example of a state highway that does not provide the shortest nor best route.  While it is potentially a turnback candidate, the issue is that it is signed for Morganton from US 19/129 (and Blue Ridge sporadically).  Google clearly shows Loving Road as the shortest and best route.  Taking SR 325 is eight miles out of the way and taking the more convoluted northern route is 6 miles out of the way.  If guide signs were posted at two intersections on Loving Road at US 76/SR 515 and SR 325, it would provide the shortest and best route.  It has no truck prohibition, is eligible for federal-aid, and it serves as an example of why guide signs should be related to roadway function instead of jurisdiction.

Cane Creek Road in Pickett County, TN is an example of a highway under local control.  It becomes a state highway in Kentucky.  The sign on the right indicated the roadway's former federal-aid secondary number before TN eliminated federal-aid funding from rural county roads.


The simple answer discussed in a prior post is that the state just takes over the responsibility of guide signs for local governments, but this has not been happening.  That involves the state assuming responsibility for posting and maintaining guide signs on all public roads regardless of ownership as a means of synchronizing state and local roadways so that guide signs are based on function and need instead of ownership.  That sounds good, but there are a number of problems with that:
  1. Not all states are doing a good job with their own guide sign program
    • Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine are examples of this: states that lack any specific specialization and have numerous deficient standards, missing signs and errors
  2. County routes, if they exist, are not based on a logical farm-to-market system because local home rule is used to define these roads in lieu of a centralized approach.
    • In these cases, the state was unwilling or unable to continue managing a farm-to-market program turning that responsibility over to the local governments leading to numerous inconsistencies (typical of county routes in Alabama, Oregon, and Colorado)
    • The state cannot realistically manage or be liable for a system with such a high level of inconsistencies, because it would show preference for participating vs. non-participating counties
    • Some counties oversign county routes while others do not sign enough routes (meaning every single county road is marked with a blue pentagon)
    • Others revoke the program entirely (in some cases the county routes exist on paper but not in the field)
    • Routes are inexplicably renumbered, change numbers, or disappear at county lines (CR 25 in one county becomes CR 1480 in the next, or CR 25 becomes a named road across a county line)
    • Routes are defined by ownership instead of function meaning that they are not signed upon entering city/town limits even though cities and towns in most states are part of a county (CR 65 becomes an unnumbered route upon entering a city even if the junction with the nearest state highway is only a mile away)
  3. States refuse to accept the liability of posting signs on roads that they do not own
    • In some cases home rule laws that were not well thought out are the blame, but in others the state simply wants no part in directly managing local affairs
    • Lack of communication means that problems that present a hazard to motorists are never addressed and that signage is inconsistent
    • Extremely incorrect or outdated information is often left on any remaining signs since most guide signs were installed by the state decades ago, and they are generally replaced "in kind" instead of reviewed for accuracy of information.
  4. States refuse to incur the additional expense and responsibility of installing and locating signs on roads that they are less familiar with.
    • Even if states do not manage any other function, it would be a minimal cost for the state to assist in guide sign installation and management, at least in rural areas
    • Since roadway classifications do not line up neatly with state control, this means that the system would function much more smoothly if they provided this service at no cost to local governments
  5. The decline in state funding and control in many states means that the economies of scale on a state level are poor.
    • This means fewer internal resources to manage guide sign planning and maintenance.
    • Because the state has to cut services, reduce staff, and outsource guide sign work to prisoners or contractors, the available oversight is not there to make sure that signs are designed correctly and placed in the field in a proper or consistent manner
    • As-is replacements are used instead of periodic review
    • Knock downs are neither located nor replaced
    • Sign clutter becomes a problem, because signs are added instead of grouped and planned properly
  6. States may indeed install guide signs on local roads, but then they would expect the local government to maintain these signs when the majority of local agencies lack the equipment or resources to effectively maintain these signs.
    • Very few local governments install directional and distance guide signs, trailblazers or any other route sign other than county routes (this is viewed an excessive expense)
    • Guide signs on former highways left over by the state are never replaced, updated or are simply removed
    • Other guide signs installed by local governments are inconsistent from county to county and typically do not comply with either state or federal standards.
    • Guide signs on a local level are typically not designed by people with any level of technical expertise to make sure that they are appropriate or correct
    • Guide signs are often the most expensive signs to produce requiring a higher level of technical expertise and materials not typically required for warning and regulatory signs such as unusual hardware, framing straps, z-bars, larger signposts, design challenges, and space is often limited on where to put the signs.
    • Signposts often must be of different lengths when terrain is uneven
  7. Some "guide signs" are actually special warning or regulatory signs.  These are special signs with similar design characteristics such as roadway prohibitions (e.g. "Notice: Candler Mountain Road Closed in Winter", "Trucks Prohibited on Maple St"), or W16-8a signs (longer street names can make these signs very large).
    • Local agencies often produce these signs too small to avoid the difficulties of producing and installing a larger, more legible sign

Guide signs are expensive and have more complicated planning than other signs.  This is the result of what happens when standards are not adequate.  In this instance, one sign for the state park would have sufficed, and the design of the green sign is sloppy and non-standard.  While this has most likely been removed, it demonstrates the need for a heavily centralized, specialized, and engineer-driven approach.

In this instance in Hughson, CA on CR J7, you see how wrong a guide sign can go even when one is properly planned but designed improperly.  This sign does not meet either MUTCD or CalTrans specifications for design even though the basic information is presented correctly.

In other words, blindly relying on the state alone more often than not means little to nothing is ever done.  A federal infusion is needed to highlight the problems and demonstrate the importance of this issue.  States DOT's should also make this a specific program to local governments usually with a PTOE hired to specifically manage the program and a process established to do so.  A local guide sign program should be coupled with state-owned guide signs so that the entire guide sign program is managed consistently on both levels of roads and projects should be grouped on both state and local roads to better manage material costs and coordinate signage.  Local agencies often do not recognize the problem, and state governments are not always structured in a way to mediate the problem.  Even when funding levels are adequate, it does not mean that either the state or local government has ever seriously considered the issue.  


Across the country, only about 1/5 of the states have a road system that is centralized enough to adequately manage guide signs.  West Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Delaware appear to have the best program with high standards, frequent maintenance and consistent application both on highways and local roads.  The problem in West Virginia and Delaware is that both have the vast majority of their roads under state control: not typical in most of the country.  Iowa and Wisconsin are the notable exceptions, and it is related to a strong culture of local traffic engineering standards lacking in other states, but it is out of the ordinary.  Wisconsin also has an overlaying road system where the counties are contracted to maintain state routes resulting in greater state oversight of county activities.  Obviously centralization has a major advantage in regards of planning and maintenance of guide signs compared to states who do not.  States that transfer roads to the local government, on the other hand, have difficulty managing guide signs, especially when route signs change in a way that destinations become invalid over long distances.  When information is not reviewed and updated when routes change, the public learns that they cannot trust these signs to provide useful information.

The three strategies needed to fix this are:
  1. The creation of a federal guide sign program
  2. Specialization (including specific state programs)
  3. Privatization
The Federal Guide Sign Program (GuideWays)

First, it should be considered that few things have helped local governments more than the state application of the High Risk Rural Roads Program on a local level.  For decades, the concept of a traffic study or installation of safety improvements by anything but the local government on local roads was unheard of.  If the county or municipality could not afford to do it on their own, it just was not done.  More often than not, local priorities went to constructing new roads, replacing bridges and repaving roads leaving next to nothing for traffic control.  Once the stop signs were installed, speed limit signs put in place and street name signs put in there was nothing else left over.  Certainly that did not include money for traffic studies or replacing the faded out traffic striping.  While these conditions still exist, they are less frequent than they once were.

What is vs. what should be.  The actual image from Google Maps above shows a tornado-damaged guide sign that was already decades old not being maintained a the junction of US 278 and CR 19, a major county route connecting Centre and Jacksonville, AL.  Jacksonville isn't even mentioned on that sign, and most likely the guide sign dates to the 1970's as a means that the state used to provide additional guidance across county lines from where they actually maintained the road.  If properly planned today, this is what you would see at this intersection.  With no program or funding in place, fixes like this just do not happen anymore.

Even now, guide signs are still non-existent on local roadways, and that is because it never was good in the first place, and no funding is available on a state level for this work.  A new federal guide sign program could eliminate this problem.  The guide sign program takes the existing HRRRP effort and expands it to include a pool of resources just for guide signs.  However, unlike the High Risk Rural Roads program where specific roads are selected for renovation and money is never enough to address every deficient road in a county or municipality, this program would be different.  It would select a county (including all cities within) for a total renovation of guide signs.  These would include signs on state roads, county roads and streets in municipalities all within the same county.  How it would work is that:
  1. The state selects an engineering firm to study every road in the county.  The firm will review the following:
    • Needed guide signs on local roads including trailblazers, directional signs, distance signs
      • "TO" route assemblies are considered trailblazers
    • Boundary and waterway signs
      • This includes city limits, town limits, unincorporated communities/CDP boundaries, county boundaries and state boundaries
      • This includes crossings of lakes, rivers and streams
      • Unincorporated communities are just as important as cities and towns since many unincorporated communities form junctions of highways as well as destinations for many roadways.
    • Junction route assemblies and county route markers (if used) on local roads
      • This includes posting route and directional assemblies on major local roads approaching the junction of a state highway
      • This includes correcting and improving the information on county routes including adding directional banners, junction assemblies, cardinal directions and reassurance signs
    • Where recreational, informational and other guide signs of public interest are needed
      • This includes guidance to state parks, colleges, hospitals, government facilities, stream crossings, jurisdictional boundaries, unincorporated communities, recreation areas and other points of interest
    • Study guide signs on state roads to see if the information is up-to-date and correct
      • Guide signs may reflect destinations and distances on older routings that are no longer valid
      • Guide signs may direct traffic to destinations along county roads previously on the state highway system where guide signs may have been removed along that former highway
    • Integrate or correct guide signs where a conflict exists with state and local roads
      • If a county road or municipal street is adequately constructed as such and it is of adequate functional classification, it may be the preferable route to the more convoluted state route
      • Inquiry from local officials should be obtained if it is acceptable to post the shorter route, and if so should truck restrictions be posted
      • Review signs outside the county boundary that conflict with signs within the county.
      • Include signs in conflict outside of the county as part of the study and notify appropriate public officials of the problem
    • Determine if guide sign text and dimensions on state-owned and locally roads comply with the MUTCD and if the signs need to be larger with larger text
      • An example is using 6" text on an expressway-type road (such as an APD corridor) instead of the required 8" text
      • Substandard guide signs on surface state roads would also be corrected to better comply with the MUTCD in dimensions, fonts and design
    • Identify which signs need replacement, where corrective action is needed or where new signs need to be installed
      • This is all indicated in the traffic study, which identifies these issues in a single plan
    • Add, replace or correct other related warning signs around the study area that involve the intersection including the installation or replacement of the following:
      • W2-x signs, W3-x signs, or W1-10x signs coupled with W16-8/W16-8a signs where a roadway with guide signs lacks a posted route number
      • W1-7 signs at T-intersections (including any state-specific design for object markers posted with W1-7 signs)
      • Any other current or needed warning signs within the study area if the signs need to be replaced or installed; this is important, because guide signs need to be coordinated with all existing signs to facilitate proper spacing
  2. Once the study has been completed, the firm will file for a federal reimbursement along with a federal grant needed to cover the cost of installation of the new signs including correction of signs in conflict outside of county boundaries
    • The federal government will have already pre-approved the study
    • Funding will be needs-based, but may not exceed a budgeted amount
  3. The state will hire a contractor to produce the signs and another to install the signs within the bounds of the project area.
    • When completed, ownership of the signs will transfer to the legally-permitted agency

In order for a guide sign program to be effective, this cannot be simply grouped in with other state or local matters.  A specific unit of state government must be in place whose only duty is to plan and design guide signs.  It may even be completely removed from the state DOT, and it could be part of a statewide roads unit.  The Statewide Contracting Plan details this, but essentially local government matters should have a central agency that they can use to provide specific, consolidated services that the state DOT does not want any part of.

The unit should: 
  1. Develop specific uniform standards (these should be included in standard drawings and in a state MUTCD supplement)
    • Framing strap/z-bar details
    • Route assembly details
    • Detailed designs of state-specific signs such as jurisdictional signage and route signs
    • A standard procedure for posting guide signs on both numbered and unnumbered routes
  2. Create templates for commonly used guide signs
  3. Make each sign according to state/federal specifications with an inspector available to reject errors
  4. Have their own shop where the signs are created in-house instead of assigned to contractors or state prison workers.
  5. Be managed by or staffed only by professional engineers with a PTOE certification and technicians with specific training who work for the PTOE  
All guide sign workers should be specially trained in state and federal standards, and they should not be assigned to any other duty to make sure that their sole focus is on guide signs.  However, they may assist in designing and producing any text-based custom sign such as the W16-8 advance street name sign.  Although the W16-8 sign is a warning sign, it functions like a guide sign.  In addition, local governments should be able to contract with this guide sign unit thus able to purchase signs or request supervision of their local guide sign program at the expense of the local government involved.

While most warning and regulatory signs may be purchased from contractors, guide signs require a higher level of technical expertise that means that they should always be produced in-house by employees who have the knowledge, interest and expertise to do the best job.  

Another option is regionalization for this purpose.  If a regional highway system is developed with resources comparable to state levels, the region can provide this service on their own with the state government contracted with the regional road system for installation and maintenance of guide signs as well as other traffic signs.


If a state lacks the resources or interest in handling guide sign matters directly, the state should contract this responsibility to one or more private engineering firms who handle this on a day-to-day basis.  If this is privatized, the state government should encourage local governments to latch on to the program by paying into it.  The state will incur all engineering costs, so local governments will receive guide sign planning and maintenance from the private firm according to what they pay in with planning handled by the firm and installation/maintenance furnished by a subcontractor hired by the firm itself.  With a private approach, it will hopefully assure that professional standards will always be met and that changes can be made incrementally in the absence of a federal-aid program.  While many local governments may not participate, the shared costs will mean that overall costs for guide sign installation on local roads will be lower than if the county/municipality handles it on their own.    


The previous post on this issue included a list of what the state alone should handle for local governments, but if the local governments were actively participating, they should also have the option to include the fabrication of street name signs (at their own expense).  Both state and local agencies should be able to rely on this unit for the fabrication of:
  1. All text-based guide signs (D1-x, D2-x, D3-x), including large freeway guide signs
  2. Special text-based signs (custom signs not found in the MUTCD)
  3. W16-8 advance street name signs (custom warning sign)
  4. Interstate, U.S., State, and County route markers (M1-1 through M1-6) and banners (M2-x through M6-x)
  5. Specific guide sign traffic studies

Guide signs as a whole need a very integrated strategy to be useful and effective.  Information on guide signs should be consistent based on route designation, road function and directional changes from endpoint to endpoint.  If a guide sign points you to Woodville yet additional turns are required to reach Woodville that are unsigned, it is a serious problem.  Not only will you not reach Woodville, but you may end up on an unsuitable road where you run out of gas or get a flat tire.  It is not acceptable for Woodville to not appear on any sign if additional turns are required at subsequent road junctions.  It means that it has misled drivers, is not effective, and poses a liability.  This means that taking a decentralized approach is a bad idea.  

In fact, the whole process of managing guide signs should be as centralized as possible: in fact more so than any other roadway function.  While it is possible to handle regulatory and warning signs effectively on a local level, this is not the case with guide signs.  Instead of being just one duty of the state's traffic control division or local highway department, guide signs should be their own separate statewide unit that handles this responsibility exclusively.  In order to do this, as many parties need to be involved as possible since this is not as everyday of an activity as putting up a stop sign.  Standards should be clearly written, local governments should be covered in the plan (and preferably helping to fund the unit) and guide sign workers should be specifically trained to handle this matter.  The more centralized this is, the lower the material costs will be allowing for better maintenance and higher standards.

In addition, a far more engineer-centered strategy is needed.  This means that a major study should be conducted on the ENTIRE road system in every county in every state: not just on the state roads or local roads.  This should be federally-funded as well with specific grants for that purpose.  Handled on a county level covering all levels of ownership from the state level to the town level, problems can be identified in a wide scope without worrying about smaller jurisdictions.  

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