State prepared to defend tourism signs

Federal administration could withhold highway funding in disagreement
A New York State tourism sign is visible along the Thruway westbound between exits 25 and 25A.
A New York State tourism sign is visible along the Thruway westbound between exits 25 and 25A.

ALBANY — State Transportation Commissioner Matthew T. Driscoll will travel to Washington, D.C., later this month to discuss the U.S. Department of Transportation’s objections to state-sponsored tourism promotion signs that have sprung up along New York’s interstate highways.

Neither side is backing down from the conflict, which could put the state’s federal highway funding at risk if federal officials can’t be convinced the signs are allowed.

The meeting, the date of which was still being determined, will be between Federal Highway Administration Administrator Greg Nadeau and Driscoll, New York state’s top transportation official.

An FHWA spokesman said the meeting will focus on providing Driscoll with an explanation of how the signs — which promote various New York state tourism programs — violate national interstate highway sign standards, “with the goal of coming up with a plan to bring the state into compliance.”

“We have been clear with the New York State Department of Transportation that its tourism-related signs are out of compliance with federal law and create a safety concern,” said Neil Gaffney, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

U.S. DOT contends the signs violate the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is designed to help drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists move safely with minimal distraction, and to establish consistency in signage between states.

Gaffney said the Federal Highway Administration first shared its concerns as early as 2011, when planning for the tourism signs was just getting underway.

The state nevertheless went ahead. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touted plans for the signs as a major tourism promotion initiative in 2014, but the largest expansion in their installation happened this year. 

There are now 514 of the signs along highways around the state, including at several locations in the Capital Region. The state has spent around $1.8 million on them.

The signs typically are being clustered in groups of five, with several hundred feet separating them. They advertise the “I Love New York” program and promote the state’s “Taste New York” local food program, state parks, and local historic sites. They’re upright rectangles, a different shape than standard informational signs found near interstate exits across the country.

“We have continued to let NYSDOT know that these signs are not in compliance,” Gaffney said last week.

The state DOT said the signs aren’t the kind of traffic-control placards governed by federal guidelines, and the state has the right to put them up as a way to encourage the multi-billion-dollar tourism economy.

“These tourism signs are non-traffic control devices, and it is our opinion that they are permissible and do not require FHWA approval,” said state DOT spokesman Gary Holmes. “We believed then and still believe now that our interpretation is consistent with federal guidelines. We look forward to discussing it further when we meet later this month.”

Among the feds’ concerns is that signs could distract motorists, Gaffney said.

“A particular area of concern for us is that fact that we are committed to reducing situations where distracted driving can occur, and these signs can distract drivers,” he said. “We are working to bring the state into compliance.”

If the state doesn’t change its position, the federal government has the ability to penalize the state.

The options could include withholding federal approval for infrastructure projects or withholding some of the $1 billion to $2 billion the state receives annually in federal highway funding.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that,” Gaffney said.


Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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