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Fight brewing in Congress over traffic signs

January 5, 2012 |  5:11 pm

SignsFirst, they turned off federal light bulb regulations. Now, Congress is turning its attention to bright traffic signs.

Lawmakers are headed for a fight over a federal transportation mandate that calls for traffic signs to be made brighter and easier to see at night.

The SIGN Act, for Stopping Intrusive Government Now, was recently introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to repeal the new sign rule, making it the latest symbol of what he and fellow Republicans have decried as Washington’s regulatory excess.

House Republicans recently succeeded in blocking enforcement of rules that required Americans to use energy-efficient light bulbs.

But a bipartisan group of House members is seeking to preserve the sign requirement, which they consider a critical safety measure, especially as the nation’s population ages.

"Signs that can be easily seen by motorists, especially by older drivers, will help make the overall driving environment safer,” said Chris Plaushin, director of federal relations for the AAA, the national association of auto clubs.

The AAA supports a competing bill, the Safe Roads for America Act, which would preserve the sign rules but give cities and states more time to comply.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last summer proposed dropping deadlines for cities and states to meet minimum "retroreflectivity" standards for signs. The deadlines were 2015 for signs that set traffic rules, such as stop and speed limit signs, and 2018 for street name signs.

He acted after financially strapped cities and states complained about the cost of replacing signs at a time when they’re having trouble filling potholes. Another option under consideration would allow cities and states to meet the new standards when worn-out signs are replaced.

But Toomey believes that decisions about traffic signs are "best made by state and local governments, not bureaucrats in Washington," an aide said. 

He introduced his legislation after hearing from places such as Lower Merion Township, a Philadelphia suburb, where officials see the sign rule as a threat to the replicas of historic cast-iron signs that they consider important to their town’s identity.

"As it stands right now, if one of our historical signs were to get damaged, we would have to replace it with the federally mandated sign," said town spokeswoman Brenda Viola. "And that would change the character of our community."

To comply with the federal mandate, the town would have to replace 1,550 signs at a cost of $175 per sign, she said.

"This unfunded mandate imposes a financial burden on every community to replace perfectly good signs,'' she added.

Toomey’s efforts are striking a chord with other lawmakers.

"Burdensome, over-regulation and unfunded mandates are the No. 1 issue that I hear about from local entities and small businesses across my district,"Rep. Robert Latta (R-Ohio) recently wrote to the Department of Transportation.

But those who favor replacing older signs with brighter ones say that without a deadline, cities and states will delay the upgrade, putting motorists at risk.

"Motorists who drive at night know how difficult it can be to read road signs," Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) said in a letter to colleagues seeking their support for the Safe Roads for America Act.

The legislation would preserve the requirement for brighter signs but give cities and states up to 2021 to comply and offer federal funds to help pay for sign replacement.

The bill’s sponsors said the legislation has become more critical as the population ages.

The issue is likely to come up for debate as lawmakers write a major transportation funding bill in coming months.

The sign rule has generated considerable public interest, based on the large number of comments filed with the Department of Transportation.

"I’m getting to an age where it is a little harder to see at night," a Wisconsin man wrote. "Bright signs do help me see better and know where I am going."

But a Virginia woman wrote: "Our government continues to come up with foolish mandates like this, and then requires local agencies to fund them."

"No wonder this country is head over heels in debt," a Florida man added.


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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: STOP! Get this: Congress is headed to a fight over traffic sign rules. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times