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Lower Merion Township's (Penn.) street signs date back nearly a century; a Federal Highway Administration mandate calls for them to be replaced with larger, retroreflective signs.
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The federal mandate requiring Lower Merion Township to replace its historic street signs by January 2018 would cost roughly $1.5 million in materials and labor. Photos: Lower Merion Township

Lower Merion Township (Penn.) might be relatively small, but it's gearing up for a big fight.

The Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) 2009 edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) gives municipalities until January 2018 to replace all overhead and street-name signs that don't meet retroreflectivity standards. The ruling requires the 60,000-resident community to replace all of its street signs, a task bearing a $1.5 million price tag, which leaders say they can't afford.

However, it's more than just finances moving the township to resist — it's also a matter of pride.

The signs date back nearly a century, when the Merion Civic Association replaced a jumble of mismatched wooden street markers with more attractive green and gold iron signs that were later spurned in favor of more durable aluminum. The design became a model used by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. in plans for community projects from coast to coast. According to Public Works Director Don Cannon, the antique signs mean a great deal to residents.

“We believe they're character-defining components of the community, and the unfunded mandate is unreasonable,” says Cannon.

Cannon and his colleagues maintain that many of FHWA's reasons for the rules — including increased visibility and ease of navigation — aren't valid for Lower Merion. No traffic collisions have ever been attributed to poor sign placement or visibility. In addition, omnipresent GPS technology and emergency vehicles' reliance on CAD-assisted dispatch means drivers' dependence on physical street name signs has dwindled significantly.

So when FHWA invited comments on the proposed MUTCD changes last year, Lower Merion leaders had plenty to say. They submitted a letter of concern explaining their objections: onerous replacement expense, desire to maintain aesthetic and historic interest, and safety issues. They also pointed out that the new signs' 15-year life expectancy is a fraction of the existing signs' durability, so the township would be forced to waste time and money on unnecessary replacements.

They aren't the only ones raising objections to the mandate, either.

Last year U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) expressed concern that the rule was put into place without first coming before Congress for a vote, and noted that it stresses financially strapped local governments by requiring them to take on the associated workload and cost without financial assistance.

While working to get the rule's impact reversed or lessened, leaders are planning ahead.

“The township is responsible to comply with the law, which is why in recent years the larger, reflective signs have been installed to replace broken or damaged historical-replica signs,” Cannon explains.

On Nov. 30, 2010, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood weighed in, stating he believes the regulations are coming at a bad time and should probably be re-examined: “There have got to be better ways to improve safety without piling costs onto the American people.”

— Jenni Spinner (jspinwrites@gmail.com) is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a former editor of PUBLIC WORKS.