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Federal sign language tests local budgets

City of Milwaukee electricians Tom Bono (left) and Dave Stuczynski finish installing the cabinet that controls new light-emitting diode traffic signals at 76th and Nash streets in Milwaukee. (File Photo by David La Haye)

City of Milwaukee electricians Tom Bono (left) and Dave Stuczynski finish installing the cabinet that controls new light-emitting diode traffic signals at 76th and Nash streets in Milwaukee. (File Photo by David La Haye)

By Sean Ryan

Public works directors are wondering how they will pay for the new traffic signs and lights required by new federal rules.

“To be frank, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of communities struggle with it,” said Brian Amundson, Eau Claire director of public works.

The federal government sets the rules for street and highway sign sizes and designs. The rules were changed last year to include new requirements such as a minimum standard for how much light signs reflect. The new rules will force municipalities to replace older signs with those that reflect more light.

Eau Claire already started cataloging city signs to see which must be replaced, and will have cost estimates late this year, Amundson said. He said he does not know how much it will strain the city’s budget.

“It probably isn’t going to compete as high as police and fire and all of those other things,” he said. “I don’t know. It depends on the extent of it.”

The federal rule change gives cities until January 2015 to bring signs up to the standard for reflecting light or to at least have an inventory and replacement schedule.

Before the revision, federal rules did not govern light reflection and did not require cities catalog their signs, said Rick Bergholz, CEO of Brown Deer-based Traffic & Parking Control Co. Inc., which manufactures street signs and rents and sells gauges that measure sign reflectivity.

“It’s quite a significant culture shock, I think, for a lot of the cities,” he said. “And, of course, the cities call it an unfunded mandate and things like that.”

The rules are not as jarring for cities such as La Crosse. Dale Hexom, La Crosse director of public works, said the signs the city is installing now meet the new standard, but he doesn’t know how many older signs must be replaced. He said the change won’t necessarily strain the city budget.

In Milwaukee, the Department of Public Works estimates it will need $160,000 annually from 2011 to 2015 to install new signs that meet the requirement, said City Engineer Jeff Polenske. Including all of the requirements in the federal rule change, such as larger traffic lights, the department plans to spend $970,000 in 2011 satisfying the new rules.

That is significant, he said, considering DPW’s estimated traffic control budget for 2011 is $2.3 million.

“It is something that’s a necessary improvement that we are having to make,” Polenske said, “and we are trying to do it in a responsible manner and not to do it all in one year.”

The incentive for local governments to comply with the rules, Bergholz said, comes from lawyers who can make a case if somebody is injured in an accident involving a sign or light that is not up to federal regulations. The cost of compliance will vary by community, he said, depending on the age and condition of signs and traffic equipment.

“It isn’t a big deal right now,” he said, “but it’s going to be.”

Amundson said once Eau Claire knows how many signs are out of compliance, it will begin replacing its old stop, yield and other warning signs as quickly as the budget allows.

“We just have to do the best we can,” he said, “based on the guidelines we have and the funding that is available.”

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