AUGUSTA — A bill meant to tidy up Maine's interstate highway system by removing or moving about 81 directional and informational signs hit a speed bump in the Legislature's Transportation Committee on Wednesday.
Lawmakers voted to table the legislation, LD 1831, which is the result of a nearly yearlong effort by the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation after the committee asked them in 2013 to produce recommendations for putting the state's highway sign policy in alignment with federal rules.
On Wednesday, lawmakers managed to agree on a series of amendments they are expected to vote on Thursday before they move the bill to the full Legislature for consideration.
Some of the amendments would allow several attractions, including Lost Valley Ski Area in Auburn and Black Mountain in Rumford, to keep their signs in place along the Maine Turnpike section of Interstate 95.
But gone under the proposal would be signs that denote several of the state's private and public high schools or preparatory academies, including MCI in Pittsfield and Hebron Academy.
Signs that point out colleges and universities, both private and public, would remain.
The measure would also set in place a new system allowing private entities to buy logo signs that would be displayed in a group on a single sign in advance of an exit leading to the attraction. Some entities, such as Sugarloaf Ski Area in Carrabassett Valley, based on the traffic they generate, would qualify for a purchased logo sign, a free guide sign and inclusion on a recreational area sign.
State Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, objected when he learned that Lost Valley would become the only ski area now with a sign to lose it. Werts said he was preparing an amendment that would change the criteria for ski resorts to include those that have a chairlift, at least 10 trails and are within 10 miles of the interstate.
Most lawmakers on the committee seemed to agree that minor tweaks to the proposal would make it more palatable for their colleagues. But they noted that the bill, because it does move or remove many signs, could still face an uphill battle on the floor.
Signs pointing to other areas, including Oxford Hills and the towns of Paris and Norway, would also stay in the current locations based on the amendments discussed Wednesday.
Lawmakers on the committee seemed to agree that extending the distance a state or national park could be from the highway in order to be included on a sign — from 100 miles to 120 miles — made sense because it would allow the signs pointing out Quoddy Head State Park and Roosevelt Campobello Park near Lubec in far eastern Maine.
Many of the signs in question are the result of legislative mandates that required the MTA or the MDOT to erect the signs in the first place. Some have suggested the Legislature should simply grandfather all signs and set a policy going forward.
Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said at stake is about $170 million in federal highway funds that come to Maine each year. A letter sent to the committee by the Federal Highway Administration saying the state is not in compliance with federal rules warns that the funds could be in jeopardy.
“In addition, noncompliance could ultimately result in the loss of federal-aid funds as outlined (in federal law),” Todd D. Jorgensen, an FHA administrator, wrote to the committee.
Lawmakers on the committee said they were attempting to create a clear policy for Maine's interstate highway signs and they wanted to get away from a piecemeal policy that saw signs being added one at a time. Sign bills have come up frequently during lawmaking sessions over the years and their fate often depends on whether lobbyists and lawmakers supporting the signs can garner the votes they need for passage. Signs approved by the House are sometimes defeated in the Senate, as was the fate of a bill in 2013 that would have resulted in a sign for Lee Academy in Lee.
A long-serving member of the committee, Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, said sign bills have become perennial issues for the Legislature. Peoples said she hoped the committee would set a policy to which subsequent legislatures would stick.
"I would like to give people the alternative of not having a political donnybrook every two years," Peoples said.
But others noted that even if they pass the bill into law, that wouldn’t prohibit anybody from trying to bring a bill that would require the installation of a particular sign on the interstate system.
“Is there any way, really, that we could make a policy and stick to it?” asked state Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. “Everybody says we can stick to it, but we are the ones who constantly go against it.”
Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of MDOT, said he believed the committee could set a policy that future lawmakers could uphold. He said that was the case with license plates and he believed if they put forward a good bill, it would be easier to stick to it. Van Note also said Valentino was correct that anybody could bring a bill in the future for a sign.
Some lawmakers suggested grandfathering the signs was the best option, but others said they preferred a five-year time frame for gradually making changes to the sign rules.
Community leaders, however, have said the signs, especially those pointing to attractions in the most rural parts of Maine, are critical to their economic well-being.
On Tuesday, dozens of opponents from around Maine, including municipal officials and lawmakers, said the bill was unfair.
The committee is expected to take up the bill at about 1 p.m. Thursday, depending on when the respective floor sessions for the House and Senate adjourn.