Street signs a blur, old-timer? Help's on the way

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • January 26, 2012 - 9:18 PM

In the dark of winter mornings, crews in Plymouth are driving around the city and eyeballing stop signs to check their condition. Golden Valley bought a machine that looks like a big gun to measure how reflective its street signs are.

Those are some of the ways cities across the nation are responding to federal requirements aimed at increasing road safety, partly to cope with the increasing numbers of older drivers. The key word is "retroreflectivity": basically, signs need to be just as visible and clear at night as they are during the day.

"It's all about the post-war baby boomers," said sign guru Ken Schroepfer of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

With finances already tight, cities raised their budgets, facing a deadline of last Sunday to have a sign-replacement plan. Some, like Golden Valley, are using the less-than-average winter to make a detailed inventory of every street sign in the city, noting its location with GPS coordinates and logging its condition.

While a stop sign costs $50 to $75, installing it brings costs to $300 to $400 per sign. A single city may have thousands of signs, from warning signs to informational signs like those with street names.

"It's a huge investment," Golden Valley city engineer Jeff Oliver said.

Human eye or machine?

Testing methods vary from city to city. Schroepfer said he tells townships and small cities that they don't need fancy equipment to assess signs. He advises them to inventory signs, even if on 3-by-5-inch cards, and make a night visit.

One approved method is to drive an SUV or pickup truck at a safe or posted speed with the low beams on. Either the driver or a passenger has to be at least 60 years old, with correctable 20/20 vision in at least one eye.

If the vehicle gets within 450 to 600 feet and the 60-year-old can't see the sign, it's a problem, Schroepfer said.

While some cities like Golden Valley have bought machines called "retro- reflectometers" to help with sign assessment, others are relying on their own crews to gauge if a sign needs replacement. Doran Cote, public works director in Plymouth, said if workers arrive early for a snowfall or other work that doesn't need as much manpower as thought, they're sent out in the dark to check signs, especially stop signs. In the past couple of years, the city has raised its sign-replacement budget to about $26,000.

Eyeballing signs works because "we have very experienced individuals," Cote said.

Avoiding litigation

With millions of traffic-control and street signs across the state, governments were in a bit of a panic last year because the regulations included deadlines for sign replacement. In August, federal authorities announced they would drop the deadlines and allow signs to be replaced as needed.

But Schroepfer said it's too early for cities, counties and townships to relax. Until the loosened rules are published in the Federal Register -- and he checks each day -- the old requirements remain in place.

Any entity with responsibility for a public road had to have a written sign-replacement plan in place by last Sunday. Schroepfer, whose formal title is traffic standards specialist, said anyone who doesn't is not in compliance.

That could be expensive if a driver who runs a stop sign has an accident and attorneys begin asking to see the sign-management plan, Schroepfer said.

"Everyone who has something to do with that roadway is going to be in court," he said.

Bigger letters

Local public works directors and traffic engineers said they've been evaluating and replacing street signs since the new requirements for visibility were announced several years ago. Robbinsdale street supervisor Rob Skurka said the city has been aggressively replacing signs, including adding street-name signs with bigger, highly reflective green-and-white plates. He said the city has been putting up "the best stop signs we can get" -- as long as it's within budget.

"Cities don't have the resources to just go out and buy [new signs], but I think we're doing pretty good," he said.

Since 2005, Eden Prairie has replaced 3,700 of its roughly 8,600 signs. The city budgets $38,000 a year for sign maintenance and requires that signs be inspected at least once every 10 years. Signs are replaced if they're more than 12 years old or are damaged, faded, marred by graffiti or lack big enough letters, said Robert Ellis, director of public works.

The city is gradually replacing 6-inch-high street-name plates with 9-inch signs that allow for bigger letters.

"There's a lot of older drivers out there, people in their late 50s even, who require larger letters or better signs," Schroepfer said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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