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New, smaller highway exit signs buy Vermont before numbering changeover

  • The Interstate 89 exit 14E for South Burlington with new signage delineating the exit's mile marker location on June 26, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VtDigger

Published: 7/7/2020 10:41:16 PM
Modified: 7/7/2020 10:41:10 PM

A project to bring Vermont into compliance with federal highway regulations has bought the state time to prepare a more concrete plan to address the required changes — but Vermont officials say no such plan is in the works.

The project — designed to address a 2009 update to federal highway rules requiring all states to comply with a mileage-based exit sign system — had been underway for several years.

Currently, Vermont exit signs follow a sequential system — meaning they start at No. 1 and go up and do not correspond with the exit’s actual mile marker. The new system would change signs to correspond with the mile marker number.

Despite the mandate being in place for more than a decade, Vermont negotiated with the Federal Highway Administration to allow the state to place small, mileage-based exit signs under existing sequential signs.

In total, the Vermont Agency of Transportation will put up nearly 70 new, smaller signs, under existing exit signs throughout interstates 89, 91 and 93, as well as U.S. Routes 4 and 7, and Vermont Route 289, costing the federal government around $250,000.

In 2018, Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, told VtDigger a change eliminating the sequential numbers would negatively impact the economy as tourism is often based on the iconic exit signs.

“It would just be a really big impact on our small businesses,” Kelley said at the time.

From breweries to food destinations, nonprofits to towns themselves, interstate exit numbers are a key part of marketing efforts, according to Kelley.

Two years later, work has begun to install the new signage around the state.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, mileage-based exit signs are used around the country and is something travelers “expect.” The system also helps emergency responders and overall safety.

Patti Coburn, the leader of the project for VTrans said the addition of this new smaller system is a stepping stone between not meeting federal highway compliance requirements and putting off the wholesale adoption of a new exit system.

“This allows us to postpone replacing our signs on a wholesale basis until the signs are at the end of their useful life,” Coburn said. “Most of the signs on our highways are 10 to 12 years old, and our signs typically last on the order of 20 to 25 years.”

Previously Vermont was joined in resisting the 2009 changes by New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Delaware.

However, Massachusetts decided last year to move into compliance and create the new exit number system.

If Vermont were to completely comply with the requirements, new exit signage would have to go up around the state replacing the current ones and would cost “millions of dollars,” Coburn said.

Massachusetts compromise

As Vermont continues its more deliberate approach to full compliance, Massachusetts has made a deal of its own with the Federal Highway Administration, said Neil Boudreau, assistant administrator for traffic and safety engineering at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

The plan Massachusetts came up with was to completely replace the exit system it used by painting over the old exit number, with the new mileage-based one, Boudreau said.

In 2009, when the most updated regulations came out from the Federal Highway Administration, the agency changed the language around mile-based-exit systems from “should” to “shall,” meaning all states had to comply, he said.

So, when these new requirements came out, Massachusetts, along with seven other states at the time, including Vermont, New York and New Hampshire, banded together and asked the federal government for an exception, Boudreau said.

Ultimately, the federal government refused and left it up to the states to work out a deal with their local Federal Highway Administration offices to reach compliance, he said.

“We worked with the Federal Highway in our Massachusetts office, and came up with a plan that we would become compliant within 10 years of adopting our methods,” Boudreau said.

A year and a half ago, the state decided to start moving on the project with several stakeholder meetings and community gatherings to get the word out about the change.

Throughout that process, Boudreau said, MassDOT has mostly gotten questions rather than “negative feedback,” especially around the funding.

“There’s been some negative feedback about why ‘you are spending money on this and not fixing a pothole, or a bridge,’ or something like that,” he said. “The answer is, is that they’re completely different funding sources and the money that we’re using is not to be used for potholes and for bridges and stuff like that it’s, it’s for this type of improvement.”

Specifically, MassDOT will be overlaying the new number on top of the existing exit numbers across the state, Boudreau said. In total, the state’s project is expected to cost around $2.8 million and will kick off later this summer.

When Boudreau was in the process of engaging with the public, some residents asked, why not do what Vermont is doing. He said after talking with folks from VTrans it became clear that the half-step in Vermont was a “Band-Aid” that would just buy the state time.

“What I got back from my colleagues in Vermont Transportation, was that this bought them time so that they can properly plan the next big sign upgrade project,” he said, “and then they’ll incorporate the changes at that point.”

What’s next in Vermont?

According to the Federal Highway Administration, using mile markers to dictate exit sign numbers is a practice used across the United States and the step Vermont has taken is a move in the right direction.

“VTrans is currently in the process of updating its highway exit signs to provide drivers with mile-marker based information. The state is posting small placards beneath the existing signs which feature the mile-marker information,” a spokesperson for the agency said. “In time, the signs with the outdated numbering references will be replaced with new signs bearing the mile-marker based information.”

However, Coburn, the project lead for VTrans, said the state has no plan currently in place to change out the signs.

“At the point that we look at doing wholesale replacement of signs, that is when we would look at actually changing the exit numbers,” Coburn said. “But there’s no current plan or time frame, as to when that would happen.”

The idea is to begin getting motorists used to the new system, but GPS information will not change, she said.

“It’s a common-sense approach to get the information to drivers, but not replace our signs prematurely,” Coburn said. It’s also an incremental step to help businesses, first responders and the traveling public get used to what the new numbering might look like.”

Currently, Vermont’s signs have 10-15 years of use left in them. The work will last throughout the summer, at least, Coburn said.

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