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New federal traffic sign standards will affect city, township budgets

STEWARTVILLE —  New traffic sign standards from the Federal Highway Administration could consume large chunks of county, city and township budgets over the next eight years.

About 40 county, city and township officials met Tuesday for a presentation by Minnesota Department of Transportation traffic standards specialist Ken Schroepfer regarding the new requirements.

The Federal Highway Administration believes the proposed change will promote safety while providing local agencies the flexibility to choose their own method to maintain the signs.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices requires signs to be either illuminated or made with retroreflective sheeting materials. Most signs in the U.S. are made with retroreflective sheeting materials, but they degrade over time and eventually need to be replaced.

Schroepfer said officials should begin creating an inventory of their signs and be on the lookout for signs that have lost their color, shape and message.


"Every sign should have a clear shape and a clear message day and night," Schroepfer said. "People who drive the road every day will know when to stop, but a failed sign doesn't help the out-of-town relative or an out-of-state tourist."

Agencies have until January 2012 to establish and implement a sign assessment or management method to maintain minimum levels of sign retro-reflectivity.

Regulatory, warning and ground-mounted guide signs that fail to meet the new requirements must be replaced by January 2015 and overhead guide signs and street name signs must be replaced by 2018.

Olmsted County construction and traffic supervisor Curt Bolles said there are roughly 18,000 traffic signs in the county that have been inventoried and upgraded as needed by three full-time employees.

He said the cost for replacing signs is part of the county's annual budget.

"Right now, all of our signs meet the minimum reflectivity requirements," Bolles said.

Bolles said some townships may have a tough time with the new standards because they haven't been maintaining their signs since the last requirements were enforced in 1990.

Elmira township clerk Gary Pedersen said that township has been putting aside money for sign replacements for the past three years. Currently, there are no federal or state funds available to help pay for the signs.


Schroepfer estimated that one stop sign alone costs between $50 and $60 and it costs another $50 to put the sign on the roadway.

Houston County was part of a early pilot program, and townships there found an average cost of $20,000 to $25,000 per township, Pedersen said.

"We still need to take inventory, and get a handle on what it's going to take to replace them," Pedersen said.

Older steel signs fade, peel and often don't have reflective glass beads to make the signs visible via headlights at night.

Schroepfer said most signs in Minnesota are made with high intensity sheeting, but their retro-reflectivity typically begins to fail after 10 to 12 years.

"Studies have shown that twice as many crashes occur at night, even though there are fewer cars on the road," Schroepfer said. "Signs need to be seen."

Stewartville city administrator Bill Schimmel isn't entirely convinced new signs are needed.

He wasn't sure how many signs in Stewartville would need to be replaced, but said at $50 for every stop sign the cost would add up fast.


Street-name signs may cost less, but there's at least two on every corner and at every intersection.

"We've lived with the current style all of these years," Schimmel said. "Sure accidents do happen, but you also have to look at how many people drive by and don't have accidents."

Schimmel said a study done in 2007 showed an average of 16,300 vehicles passing through Stewartville on U.S. 63 per day.

"Most of the time accidents happen because people are driving too fast for road conditions," Schimmel said. "I think the current system is doing pretty well."

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