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Maine Highway Signs Bill Draws Wide Opposition
04/01/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in the Maine Legislature don't agree on much. But in Augusta this afternoon, lawmakers across the ideological spectrum joined business owners and local officials in speaking out against a bill they say will hurt tourism in towns across the state. The measure would remove nearly a third of the signs on Maine highways that direct motorists to secondary locations. Officials with the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority, which support the bill, say the law needs to be changed for Maine's interstates to comply with federal highway sign standards. Jay Field reports.

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The federal government uses a mixture of factors, including population size and distance, to decide whether a secondary sign complies with the law. Maine eliminated highway billboards in the 1970s. But over the years, Maine lawmakers have made a habit of seeking approval for signs that promote towns, parks, tourist attractions and other destinations in their districts.

"Maine receives more than $5 billion annually from tourism. From this industry, which supports 90,000 jobs, we receive $370 million in tax revenues," said Sen. David Burns.

And few places are as dependent on tourism-related jobs and revenue as the small town at the easternmost end of Burns' district. Burns represents all of Washington County, and parts of Hancock and Penobscot Counties. He says removing signs on I-95, noting the exit for Campobello Island, New Brunswick and Roosevelt International Park, would make it more difficult for tourists to find their way. And that would be bad news for the park and neighboring Lubec.

"It is one of the biggest employers in the community of Lubec and draws about 130,000 visitors annually," Burns said. "There is also a reciprocal agreement between New Brunswick, Canada and Maine for advertising each other's location. I wonder how New Brunswick will respond if we take down the signage to Roosevelt Park on I-95."

When most bills come up for a public hearing, it's usually just a few lawmakers - besides the sponsors - who show up to testify. But not on this bill. Burns was the first in a long line of legislators - conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats - eager to denounce the measure.

Rep. Sharon Treat is a Hallowell Democrat. Treat marveled that federal law says fast food chain restaurants "can have their own logo because they're paying money for it," Treat said. "But a directional sign, to a city" like Hallowell, which I-95 actually runs through, "a city that has a thriving downtown of independent business, on a state highway, that sign must be removed because the city of Hallowell, like just about every other community in the state of Maine, does not have 10,000 people in it."

LD 1831 would affect 68 signs - roughly a third of the 225 on Interstates 95, 295 and 395. Besides lawmakers, the bill drew opposition from large numbers of municipal officials and people who run seasonal, tourism-dependent businesses like Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco. A silence overtook the hearing room, when the committee gave the floor to supporters of the bill.

"Mr. Chairman, for those in favor, you will hardly need a sign-up sheet," said Peter Mills, the head of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Before beginning his remarks, Mills passed out some sheets of paper to members of the Transportation Committee.

"The yellow one is the federal letter we received - all of us received - explaining that there is supposed to be a uniform policy on all interstates."

Mills says he travels to a lot of states by car. And when it comes to signs on the highway, Mills says Maine is an outlier.

"When I do travel on interstates in other states, I like to observe the extent to which these other states are in relative conformity with our own practices. And I have to say that Maine is out of conformity to what I've seen in other states," he said.

To Mills, it's a simple matter of complying with federal law. Maine, he says, has been out of compliance for too long. Transportation officials were directed by the Legislature, just last year, to draft a measure to fix the situation. Mills says it's long past time for lawmakers to approve it and bring the state into compliance.



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