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Maine House Advances Controversial Highway Signs Bill
04/10/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

New federal standards on the posting of informational signs along the interstate mean that Maine is now out of compliance. Lawmakers are trying to solve the problem with a new bill, but the proposed solution is not without its critics. Several legislators attempted to obtain exemptions for their constituents back home when the bill was debated in the House. Ultimately, more than two-thirds of the lawmakers favored changes that would align the state's policy with federal regulations. AJ Higgins has more.

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Is a sign a directional device, or is it an advertisement meant to attract customers? That was one of the underlying questions that prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to firmly suggest that Maine revise its policies governing where and how signs on the Interstate should be erected.

A legislative policy committee has developed a plan to bring the state into compliance with federal regulations, but it means that dozens of existing signs will be moved and others will be taken down.

Rep. Craig Hickman, a Winthrop Democrat, told colleagues on the House floor that elements of LD 1831 just don't seem fair.

"In 2014, The Theater at Monmouth will celebrate its 45th year as the capitol region's only professional theater," Hickman said. "In this year, it will also see the only signage on I-95 directing people to Monmouth removed from the turnpike."

Hickman hoped to exempt The Theater at Monmouth from the bill, but his amendment was defeated. Supporters of the bill were reluctant to accept amendments, fearing the bill would be diluted. And according to members of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, without a solid bill in place, the state could forfeit millions of dollars in federal highway funding.

But Rep. Eleanor Espling, a Republican from New Gloucester, reminded colleagues that her constitutents would also suffer under the proposal.

"If this bill is enacted without the amendment, the turnpike sign for Shaker Village will be taken down," she said. "They would have the option of purchasing a logo sign if they go through the process and have the money, which isn't really a possibility for them."

Espling offered an amendment that would have grandfathered all of the existing turnpike signs prior to July 1 to permit the development of a policy for new signs after that date. She says that would be fairer than creating different categories based on the signs' purpose and location on the highway. A number of signs, such as the one for Shaker Village, could be re-erected as a three-foot-by-four-foot logo sign, at a cost of $1,500.

Espling says it's not a fair solution. "My understanding of the bill was to set up standards so that we don't have winners and losers with signs," Espling said. "But the bill picks losers; it has even been amended in the committee's bill to help some of the bigger entities who would have lost their signs to now keep their signs."

Rep. Joseph Brooks, an unenrolled member from Winterport, wanted to kill the bill, which he says would punish non-profits, such as Fort Knox in Prospect.

"Those people who are fortunate enough to already have a sign are going to have their sign taken down. But oh! -- wait a minute - you can put it back up for $1,500 bucks," Brooks said. "Which non-profit do you know, like the folks at the Shaker place or the folks at Fort Knox, who have a readily available $1,500 to rebuy the sign that they already had, and have had for years, which passed the current regulations?"

While several of the lawmakers had a dog in the fight, the House chair of the Legislature's Transportation Committee that developed the bill does not.

"Signs are not a problem for me where I live - I have more moose than I have signs," said Rep. Charles Theriault.

Theriault, a Madawaska Democrat, says the Legislature had no choice but to find a way to respond to the federal government that would provide options for Mainers who want to erect signs on the Interstate while still respecting federal regulations.

He says many of those opposed to the bill have failed to recognize the underlying criteria for signage on federal highways. "Signs are not really there to, more or less as we call it, promote business," Theriault said. "The signs are there to give you your destinations."

The Maine House agreed, approving the bill by a vote of 120-23. The measure now moves to the Senate.


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