Controversial tourism signs will come down

State announces removal a day after U.S. DOT issued $14 million fine
New York tourism sign along the Thruway westbound between exit 25 and 25A.
New York tourism sign along the Thruway westbound between exit 25 and 25A.

ALBANY — The controversial “I Love NY” tourism promotion signs will be removed by the end of September, state officials announced late Friday, a day after the U.S. Department of Transportation threatened $14 million in fines over the signs.

In a joint statement, Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll and acting state Department of Transportation Commissioner Paul A. Karas said the tourism promotional campaign that includes the signs has been successful, but it has run its course — so the signs will be removed in favor of signs promoting a new “NY has it all!” tourism campaign.

“It will be a campaign launched for the summer tourism cycle and, as such, must be concluded before the September (Federal Highway Administration) deadline anyway,” Driscoll and Karas said in the joint statement.

The FHWA, which has told the state since 2011 that the 514 signs installed along interstate highways don’t comply with federal standards, on Thursday issued the $14 million fine — but it gave the state until Sept. 30 to come into compliance and avoid the penalty.

State officials said the new campaign will be in place by then, and while road signs will be involved, they will consult with federal highway officials on those before putting them up, this time.

“Existing materials will be reused but, as the signs will be redesigned for the new campaign, we will consult with the FHWA during this process,” Karas and Driscoll wrote.

Removing the signs by Sept. 30 appears to mean the fine — actually a withholding of federal funding for the state DOT — won’t be levied, though it was imposed effective immediately.

“If the state comes into compliance with the requirements mentioned above by Sept. 30, 2018, FHWA will reinstate the funds,” acting FHWA Administrator Brandye Hendrickson wrote in the letter the state received Thursday.

The fine would have been 1 percent of the state’s allocation of major federal highway aid.

The “I Love NY” promotional signs are found along the Thruway, the Adirondack Northway and other interstate highways, including locations in Schenectady, Albany and Saratoga Springs. The signs typically are clustered in groups of five, with several hundred feet separating them. They’re pole-mounted upright rectangles — a different shape than standard informational signs found near interstate exits across the country, and they are blue, a different color that standard green interstate signs.

The FHWA first told the state in the summer of 2016 that the signs — which promote “I Love NY,” Taste of New York, Path Through History and state parks — don’t comply with federal standards for uniform signage along interstate highways. State officials said they believed the signs were allowed.

The FHWA 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 in 2016, with the state spending about $8.1 million to install a total of 514 signs.

Subsequently, federal and state officials had discussions, but no accord was reached. The FHWA has rejected state efforts to declare the signs an “experiment” allowed under federal sign law.

The FHWA said the signs create safety concerns.

“In addition with the non-compliance listed above, each of these signs is on large supports and structures that create obstructions within the roadway environment that could pose safety risks,” Hendrickson wrote in the letter.

In their statement, Driscoll and Karas said that over the course of the five-year tourism campaign, the number of tourists visiting the state increased by 18 percent, with a direct impact on local economies.

“As the current campaign and signs are entering their fifth year, the message has run its useful course and we already plan to launch a new ‘I Love NY’ campaign this summer to support our tourism industry,” they said. “The campaign will have, as usual, comprehensive television and print advertising, as well as new road signage.”

In any federal-state discussions about the design of new signs, the federal government would have the leverage of going forward with the fine if they were unhappy with the state’s new plan.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086,[email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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