The can’t-make-this-stuff-up story of “I Love New York” highway signs has everything: political ambition, misspent millions, and a deep-red state benefiting from a boondoggle in blue New York.
Top that if you can. But I’d say this twisted tale is hands-down winner for wackiest sign story of the year.
First, let me explain a basic premise. Signs on the roadway — public lands acquired and maintained with your tax money — are supposed to be uniform. On purpose. Stop signs have eight sides. And, they’re red. Uniformity means mobile motorists have better odds to process traffic-control messages.
This principle also applies to highway signs, which are governed by a thick government manual that means highway signs look pretty much the same. If you put up highway signs that violate the federal manual, you get in trouble.
Enter New York State, and its governor, Andrew Cuomo. Not wanting to allow pesky signage requirements to get in the way of a promotional bonanza — in a run-up to holidays and elections — the Cuomo Administration authorized installation of some 500 new “I Love NY” blue highway signs.
The stated goal was to promote New York State and elements of the “New York Experience.” The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) clearly warned New York State that these signs did not comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways. Unfazed, the State proceeded, basically daring the feds to do something about it.
These signs were installed in groups of five, one “motherboard” sign and four additional signs in quick succession highlighting specific destinations/attractions. The feds contended that the signs were distracting, too close together, cited the state’s tourism website, and — horror of horrors — contained italics.
Installation cost more than $8 million, including overtime and outsourcing production of at least some signs to Arkansas.
As the Trump Administration moves to reduce some regulations elsewhere, federal transportation officials dropped the hammer on New York State, withholding $14 million in highway funds.
Even in New York, which already sunk millions into this dubious highway-sign project, a $14 million federal penalty is real money. So, the state removed approximately 400 of the 500 signs, leaving in place the “motherboard” signs (with no website reference or italics), prompting the feds to restore the $14 million to the State.
The conclusion of this tale features tortured government syntax. What happens to the hundreds of signs removed? They’re “repurposed,” says the State’s transportation department, to various service areas, welcome centers, and state-owned facilities.
The state-federal agreement to take down most of these signs is called an “experiment,” which lasts two years, and promises — you guessed it — a report.
Other states looking to avoid millions in unnecessary expense should see this as a cautionary tale. But one can never discount the allure of a State’s self-promotion. Arkansas sign manufacturers undoubtedly would welcome the extra business.