DoT’s Road-Sign Mandate: ‘Wrong Way,’ Not Just ‘Slow Down’

In Washington, one is expected to be grateful for even small breakouts of relative sanity. Consider, for example, the Department of Transportation’s decision to scale back its widely blasted regulations meant to force local and state governments around the country to replace perfectly good street and road signs with new signage of prescribed lettering, size and “retroreflectivity.” (If you missed the announcement – it was dropped into the news just before Labor Day – here are the Detroit News and New York Times accounts.) Instead of requiring local authorities to replace all old signs by 2018, DoT will now (with some exceptions) let them wait until signs wear out before having to follow the new design standards. That means New York City won’t be obliged to drop many other projects in favor of a crash program to replace its more than 300,000 signs, Delaware can spread the $60 million plus it expects to spend over a longer period, and so forth for thousands of other towns, counties and states that had flinched at billions in new mandated spending.

The delay in implementation is welcome, but what’s still absurd is the idea of there being any mandate at all. The Framers prescribed a federal government of limited powers, which did not include the power to prescribe the retroreflectivity, size or lettering of everyone’s local street signs. Supposedly, older drivers will find the new big-and-reflective signage a boon, though I suspect no one has actually asked them whether they expect their navigation to improve once the town has ripped out all their familiar signs. And while safety may be advanced by standardized designs for, say, stop signs and one-way arrows, the great bulk of signage, on street names in particular, will work fine without national standardization, which indeed may choke off fruitful experimentation adapted to local conditions.

One group quoted as supportive of the full mandate is the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. According to the group’s website: “On behalf of its more than 5,000 public and private sector members, ARTBA’s primary goal is to aggressively grow and protect transportation infrastructure investment” – that is, to keep more and more money flowing for roads and their improvers.