It’s highly likely that the ordinary motorist on the Maine Turnpike has no idea that the size, shape and placement of signs indicating points of interest or nearby recreational areas are not aligned with federal rules that require each state to have sign standards.

Last year, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee directed the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority to work together to come up with a plan to tidy that discrepancy. And, to their credit, they did.

In fact, according to MTA Executive Director Peter Mills, MTA and MDOT spent an “enormous” amount of time and energy to do so. But, what they came up with isn’t sitting right with folks in rural Maine who say they depend on turnpike signs to help guide tourists and their recreation dollars to town.

The bill, “An Act to Allow Signs for Areas of Local, Regional and Statewide Interest on the Interstate System,” sets rules for all signs placed in rights of way on all interstate roads, and bans so-called “logo signs” the length of the turnpike. Many of the destination-specific signs on the turnpike, including those pointing to Oxford Hills and western Maine, will be removed if the plan is approved, although MTA has said it could take 5 years until that work is complete.

It’s that forced removal that has riled folks.

It’s not like employees of Hebron Academy or those at the Bethel Chamber of Commerce slinked out to the turnpike one night and erected their signs. They applied for, and won legislative approval for, signs that were set in place some time ago by the Turnpike Authority.

On Tuesday, folks who benefit from existing sign placement asked the Transportation Committee to grandfather their signs and leave them in place. Go ahead and craft future standards, they said, but don’t yank up the signs now standing. 

That seems like a fair way to proceed given that these entities followed turnpike and legislative protocol to get their destinations posted.

And, it would be far less costly than the manpower needed to pull the signs out or move them to other locations.

In all, the bill will force the removal of 63 signs along the interstate highway system, which includes the turnpike, the remainder of I-95 and I-295.

If the measure passes, one of the turnpike signs that will come down points motorists to Rumford-Andover, in northern Oxford County. Why? Because these towns are too far from the turnpike and don’t meet the proposed standards of “major recreational area,” even though the Appalachian Trail cuts right through there.

We’re sure that, at least from the perspective of the people living in Andover and Rumford, these towns are major recreational areas, loaded with options to ski, hike, bike, swim, shop, camp, dine and more. These activities are valued revenue producers, so how can the Legislature justify dismissing that reality?

The proposal allows towns that are well populated, are close to an exit and have a major highway running to them to be eligible for a destination sign. If fewer than 10,000 people live in a town, there is no direct highway access and it’s farther than 10 miles out, no sign.

If a town doesn’t qualify for signage under the standards, it can argue for a sign anyway if its “inclusion would benefit travelers.” What does that mean exactly?

That a town may have a particularly desirable restaurant that would benefit travelers? Has significant discount shopping? Or, maybe, there’s a casino in town. Or a racetrack.

Oxford, a town of just over 4,000 residents, is nearly 15 miles from the nearest turnpike exit in Auburn and the route between the two is not accessible by a main highway — three strikes against it as far as signage goes.

The turnpike exit in Gray, nearly 19 miles from Oxford’s casino and 21 miles from Oxford Plains Speedway, does connect to Oxford directly along Route 26, but because of the town’s size and distance from Gray, it again fails to meet the sign criteria.

So, if the town — or an entity in that town — wants to apply for signage, it’ll have to prove its “inclusion would benefit travelers.”

Never mind that someone then has to decide whether a casino or racetrack is beneficial to travelers, but the standard that an entity can qualify for a sign if it’s big-and-close but is disqualified if it’s small-and-away seems arbitrary and subjective. Particularly since so much of Maine — really, most of Maine — is set far distant from any highway exit.

The bill is subjective in other ways.

It allows for the placement of destination signs for ski areas that have a minimum vertical drop of 1,000 feet or 40 or more maintained trails.

Lost Valley in Auburn, a family-friendly resort that is attractive for beginning skiers, has 240 feet of vertical drop and 15 trails. Its small size disqualifies it from nearby turnpike signage, but it might be able to purchase a “logo” sign on faraway I-295.

Same is true for Black Mountain Ski Area in Rumford.

Sunday River in Newry, which has 2,340 feet of vertical drop and 135 trails, will qualify for a no-cost turnpike sign because the resort is so much bigger.

This bill promotes bigger as better. Or, at least bigger is better suited for signage.

Is that really Maine’s policy standard?

The folks who benefit from existing signs followed a Legislature-approved process and the only fair thing here is to grandfather existing signs, and not just for 5 years, as the Transportation Committee discussed Wednesday.

When Andover applied for its sign, there was no set time and Andover isn’t going to disappear in 5 years. Neither should its sign.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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