Traffic signs that direct travelers to Maine destinations may be removed or altered if the Legislature approves a bill proposing major changes in the selection criteria used to determine which attractions merit signs on the turnpike.

Among the 25 signs slated for removal by the Maine Turnpike Authority are those for the Norway-South Paris-Oxford Hills region, the Andover-Rumford Recreational Area, Black Mountain Ski Area, Monmouth and Hebron Academy.

Critics of the bill, LD 1831, say removing signs may put less-popular tourist destinations, such as locations in Western Maine, at a further disadvantage compared to well-known locales in the state.

“There are some pretty interesting parts of the state that don’t have lighthouses, but I’m not sure the Turnpike Authority or the Legislature recognizes that,” Norway Town Manager David Holt said.

The announcement of possible sign removal came too late for affected communities to organize an effective response before a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon before the Transportation Committee , officials in Oxford Hills said.

In a March 20 letter sent to sign stakeholders, MTA Executive Director Peter Mills said signs must be moved or removed to comply with a new sign policy developed over the past year by the MTA and the Maine Department of Transportation at the direction of the Legislature.

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In total, 67 signs are slated to be relocated, changed or removed, according to a list developed by MTA and attached to the letter to stakeholders.

Thirteen signs, including ones for the Bethel Recreational Area and the University of Maine at Farmington, may be relocated to more appropriate exits.

Signs for commercial entities and venues, such as the Lewiston Sports Complex and Lost Valley, may be removed but would qualify for separate “logo” signs, according to MTA’s list.

Erin Courtney, an MTA spokeswoman, said the Legislature’s call for changes was a reaction to the number of sign requests they received that did not comply with national guidelines outlined by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and codified in the Federal Highway Administration’s uniform traffic controls manual.

Prior to the guidelines requested by legislators, the process for getting a sign put up on the turnpike has been chaotic, Courtney said, from presenting a bill to the Legislature to knowing the right people in the MTA.

“There’s been no standards or strict guidelines on what even gets a sign,” she said. “This was a way of trying to make things more standardized and fair.”

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The Turnpike Authority and MDOT recognize that many locations in Maine are not directly accessible from the highway. They took the state’s rural landscape into account when adapting American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials guidelines into the bill, Courtney said.

The proposed rules break highway signs into two categories: interchange guide signs that alert drivers to areas of local, regional, or statewide interest, including towns and cities within 5 miles of a highway exit, or those that have a major road leading to another population center of 10,000 or more or a town or area that is considered a major destination that is “directly connected to the exit if its inclusion would benefit travelers.”

The second category, supplemental guide signs, are those that provide directional guidance to travelers and are not already identified on an interchange sign.

The bill would disqualify locations such as Oxford Hills and Rumford-Andover, which have signs on I-95 near the Gray-New Gloucester and Auburn exits, because they are too far from the interstate and do not meet the requirement of “major recreational area” under the proposed rules.

Requirements include having a public beach or lake access with parking for at least 100 vehicles and restrooms, or generating significant tax revenue and offering “recreational opportunities of sufficient traffic significance,” according to the proposed bill.

Those requirements could mean the removal of other signs, including those pointing to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, the Maine College of Art in Portland and Roosevelt Campobello Park near Lubec.

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In other cases, an attraction is deemed not big enough to merit a sign. Black Mountain Ski Area in Rumford, for example, would see its sign on I-95 in Auburn removed because it does not have the required 1,000-foot vertical drop or 40 maintained trails.

In Norway, a town that has worked hard over the past five years to revitalize its historic downtown and draw visitors, Holt said losing the highway sign would be a blow to that effort.

“It is a challenge to stay afloat,” Holt said.

“Our mills have closed, and our new way to survive is that we’re great places to live and great places to visit,” he said. “For the life of me, I can’t imagine what harm the sign does. The turnpike’s a pretty boring place, and the signs are, at worse, entertaining.”

Route 26, which runs though Norway-South Paris, is one of the busiest roads in the state, Holt noted.

John Williams, director of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce, said he had learned about the proposed sign changes only a day ago, and the chamber’s board of directors was still organizing a response.

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“It is unlikely that the chamber will be in support of something like this,” Williams said. “It literally takes away the landmarks that we need and the signs we need to direct people to where we are.”

State Reps. Tom Winsor, R-Oxford, and Roger Jackson, R-Oxford, both said they intended to testify against the bill.

State Rep. Charles Kenneth Theriault, D-Madawaska, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said legislators expected a “lot of pushback” on the bill, but he noted that it was still a proposal and nothing was set in stone.

Although acknowledging he had not been completely briefed on the bill’s contents, he cautioned that there could be a risk of losing federal highway funds if the state did not comply with the sign regulations.

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