ALBANY — The U.S. Department of Transportation is threatening to hit New York state for approximately $14 million, unless more than 500 "I Love NY" promotional signs are removed from along the state Thruway, the Adirondack Northway and other interstate highways.
A letter received by state transportation officials on Thursday from Federal Highway Administration acting Administrator Brandye L. Hendrickson said that, because the state has repeatedly been told the signs violate federal standards, and because the state has taken no action to remove them, the U.S. DOT will withhold 1 percent of the state's federal highway aid — an estimated penalty of $14 million.
"Because of the installation of more than 500 non-compliant signs and repeated notification to remove these installations, the FHWA will assess initial penalties for non-compliance effective immediately," Hendrickson wrote, though she said the state has time to remove the signs and avoid the penalty.
"If the state comes into compliance with the requirements mentioned above by Sept. 30, 2018, FHWA will reinstate the funds," Hendrickson wrote.
The state Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The Federal Highway Administration 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. 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. State officials said they believed the signs were allowed.
Since then, federal and state officials have had discussions, but no agreement has been reached that would allow the signs to become legal, and the FHWA has rejected state efforts to declare the signs an "experiment" allowed under federal sign law.
The FHWA said the signs also 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 that announced the penalty.
"Motorist safety is always our primary objective," Hendrickson wrote. "One of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) responsibilities in this area is to ensure safety by requiring consistent sign information across the country."
The letter went to acting state DOT Commissioner Paul A. Karas and acting Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll, the former DOT commissioner.
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.
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 514 signs.
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.