Editorial: Sign war hurts taxpayers

New York tourism sign along the Thruway westbound between exits 25 and 25A.
New York tourism sign along the Thruway westbound between exits 25 and 25A.

How much is $14 million in highway aid?

For the state, apparently not much, since it continues to thumb its nose at federal transportation officials over a stupid dispute started by the state over 500 ugly blue highway signs. 

But when you break that $14 million down to dollars and cents, it can go a long way toward upgrading, repairing, maintaining and plowing our roads.

As a random example of the costs of maintaining roads in an average New York town, let’s look at the highway spending for the town of Niskayuna.

The town maintains 85 miles of local roads for its 22,400 residents. In the adopted 2017 town budget, town highway appropriations were $3.8 million.

That covers the entire Highway Department budget for the year. That includes salaries, overtime, health benefits and pension payments for all employees.

It covers all equipment, repairs and fuel for the year. It covers the cost of asphalt, pothole patch, road salt and other materials needed to keep the roads in good repair and cleared of snow. It includes drainage, signs and brush-cutting. It includes disability, insurance and Social Security payments. It covers the principal and interest on outstanding bonds.

For $14 million, the town could fund its entire annual highway budget for over 3-1/2 years. For smaller towns and villages, that kind of money would go even further.

So even though the actual dollar amount is small compared to what the state and counties spend on highway budgets, it’s not small change if you’re driving on a street littered with potholes or can’t get to work because your road hasn’t been plowed.

Yet the state has continued to refuse orders from the Federal Highway Administration to remove those hideous giant blue “I Love NY” signs that dot the highways in batches of four or five and spoil the landscape throughout the state. 

The signs violate federal standards for highway signs, and the feds have been demanding the state remove them for the past few years. Earlier this year, the federal government withheld $14 million in federal highway aid, with the pledge of restoring the money only if the state removed the signs by Sept. 30. After that, the feds will keep the money and perhaps impose more penalties.

So far, the signs are still up, and there has been obvious effort to remove them.

Now, a bunch of Republican members of Congress have joined the call for the removal of the signs, creating a political issue over a simple matter of the state’s stubbornness to follow one simple condition for receiving federal highway aid.

This might be just a dispute over a bunch of silly signs.

But for taxpayers, it’s the loss of a bunch of real money.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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