Observant drivers have noticed that pink arrows are appearing on shoulders of metro-area freeways with a greater frequency, but they have no idea what their purpose is.

In short, they point to the base of a sign placed near the roadway so Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) crews can easily find them when they have to fix a sign that has been knocked down or needs to be replaced because they are obsolete.

It turns out there is a lot more behind those markings, which were the innovative idea of a MnDOT employee.

In the past, signs denoting exit ramps, merge points, locations to yield and to warn drivers they were going the wrong way were hung on uprights attached to short posts pounded into the ground. When signs got hit, MnDOT would have to find the damaged post, pull it and pound in a new one before erecting a replacement sign.

Crews sometimes spent hours — especially after plows came by — shoveling snow and even used metal detectors to locate the damaged posts, said Jeff Boche, an assistant superintendent in the Traffic Services Department. Then before digging a hole to pound in a new post, crews would have to wait for Gopher State One Call to check the area for underground utility lines. With an all-clear, crews could put up a new sign. That process took as long as three days, Boche said.

Getting the signs up as fast as possible “is critical for public safety because they are information. People need them,” said MnDOT spokesman Kent Barnard.

Signs of trouble

MnDOT is going away from the old sign structure. It’s now using breakaway signs in which uprights are attached to a post bolted onto a base on the ground. That’s safer for motorists as signs attached at the base are designed to shear off at the bottom when hit, and won’t “be flopping back onto the windshield,” Boche said.

It’s also cheaper, makes for faster repairs and it’s safer for MnDOT crews, Boche said.

“We don’t have to locate posts and repound posts,” he said.

“It went from a 3- to 4-hour job to one we could do in 10 minutes. That is the beauty with the bases. Once a sign is hit we can set it right back up.”

That’s a godsend for the eight crews in the eight-county metro district that replace 8,000 to 10,000 signs a year. It’s a big cost saving, too, as MnDOT spends $2 million a year on labor and materials to replace signs, said Sheila Johnson, who works in Metro District Traffic Services.

It’s safer, too, as crews are standing along the highway for shorter periods, lessening the chance of getting hit, Boche said.

Drivers who take out a highway sign are liable and can be forced to pay for the damage. But the agency or police must be able to identify the driver at fault. Signs cost between a couple hundred dollars to as much as $8,000, but few drivers ever pay. MnDOT collected about $200,000 in restitution during the last fiscal year and expects the same this year, Johnson said.

The arrows originally were yellow when they debuted in 2016 but changed to pink after the gas company complained yellow was too close to what it uses to mark utilities, Boche said.

MnDOT, believed to be the first state to use the arrows, was looking for a way to mark the bases. An employee came up with the idea in a brainstorming session. It’s now standard procedure to use them, so expect to see more on a freeway near you.

 

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