MUTCD on the Council Agenda

Councilor Lukes has the following order on Tuesday’s Council Agenda:

Request City Manager report on the unfunded mandates included in the new Federal Manual on Traffic Control and the estimated cost of compliance as it concerns the replacement of street signs for the purpose of including upper and lower case letters in each sign.

(Wondering where this is coming from?  The likely source is this wildly inaccurate article about MUTCD from the New York Post.)

Now, I’ve learned more about MUTCD and street signs than I ever intended, though I’m still an amateur, but here’s the result of my reading of the MUTCD (specifically, the compliance dates located in this massive pdf in table I-2) and other documentation on the FHWA website.

From the MUTCD FAQ: “Specific compliance dates have been established for only a few new requirements in the MUTCD that are of critical safety importance justifying upgrading existing devices before they may be at the end of their service life, or in cases where the new MUTCD requirement is for an action, such as a study, that is not related to service life.”

There are four compliance dates regarding street signs.  There are two compliance dates for mandatory retroreflectivity standards, which are not discussed in this order, so I don’t need to go into that.

There are only two other compliance dates for street signs.  One is that we need a “6-inch letter height for lettering on post-mounted Street Name signs (except on multi-lane streets with speed limits greater than 40 mph)” [compliance date January 29, 2012] and “8-inch letter height on post-mounted signs on multi-lane streets with speed limits greater than 40 mph and 12-inch letter height on overhead signs” [compliance date December 22, 2018].

There are no specific compliance dates for the uppercase and lowercase requirements.  What that means is that when we replace or make a new street sign, that sign would need to be in compliance with the 2009 MUTCD guidelines (uppers/lowers of a certain size; really, you don’t want to hear me get into that again, do you?) but there is no unfunded mandate here, because there’s no compliance date.

The existing signs should live out their normal life and, upon reincarnation, be replaced with signs in 2009 MUTCD compliance.  End of story.

If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, it would be this: Worcester has been replacing existing street signs at a rapid clip.  Those signs are not of a consistent design, and some are not even consistent with MUTCD, and I would warrant a guess that they would not have needed to be replaced otherwise.  Meanwhile, there are still some older, yellow signs that most definitely do need to be replaced (for retroreflectivity, if nothing else) and have not yet been.  The question is not how much an unfunded mandate from the federal government would cost, but rather how much money we as a city have spent on signs that don’t need to be replaced, all for the sake (as far as I can tell) of a heart on the sign.

I encourage Councilor Lukes (or any councilor with a conscience) to ask the city manager a different question.  Instead of inquiring after non-existent “unfunded mandates”, please ask Mr. O’Brien about the apparent city-driven mandate to replace perfectly MUTCD-compliant signs with ones that may or may not be MUTCD-compliant — and at taxpayer’s expense.  All for the sake of a heart graphic.  During one of the biggest recessions in recent memory.  Most of us would rather see that money spent  filling our potholes instead.