AUGUSTA — The Maine House on Thursday overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bill that revamps the state’s laws for signs along interstate highways.

On an initial vote of 120-23, LD 1831 passed despite concerns from some lawmakers who said the bill would lead to the removal of signs that help their communities’ tourist trade.

The bill, which seeks to align the state with federal law and protect an estimated $170 million in federal highway funds, applies to the Maine Turnpike, Interstate 95 and Interstate 295. It would move or remove about 90 signs altogether but includes provisions that would allow some entities, including several nonprofit attractions, to replace their signs with so-called “logos” for which they would pay an annual fee.

Losing their interstate signs completely is a group of private high schools that includes MCI in Pittsfield and Hebron Academy in Hebron.

A majority of lawmakers beat back two attempts to amend the bill by voting to indefinitely postpone a vote on the amendments before passing the bill.

State Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, voted against the measure after her attempt to amend the bill to grandfather all existing interstate signs was killed. Espling said her main concern was that Shaker Village along Route 26 in New Gloucester would lose its Maine Turnpike sign under the proposal.

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She noted that the village was unique in the world, a National Historic Landmark and on the National Historic Register. She said the village with its 17 historic buildings was the only active Shaker community on the planet. The nonprofit attraction depends heavily on its summer tourism season, and could not afford the annual $1,600 fee to have a logo sign installed on the turnpike, Espling said.

“Shaker Village is a tourist destination, and with tourism being such a big part of our economy in Maine, this original bill would make Maine less tourist-friendly,” she said.

Espling argued that signs all across Maine would be affected.

“These signs are not meaningless,” she said. “And other legislators will tell you how much their signs mean to them in their districts.”

She said the bill was meant to remove interstate signs from the political arena and place them in a more regulatory one, but the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which wrote the bill, had already “tweaked” it to allow some signs targeted for removal to stay.

Local officials also have voiced concerns about the loss of interstate signs.

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The bill might have been meant to set standards so there would not be winners and losers, Espling said.

“But the bill picks losers,” she said.

State Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, also attempted to amend the bill so the town of Monmouth and the Theater at Monmouth could keep their signs on the interstate.

Others speaking against the bill and for the amendment said the bill was essentially the state accepting a federal mandate and one that seemed unlikely to be enforced.

State Rep. Joe Brooks, an independent from Winterport, said the measure would mean Fort Knox State Park’s interstate signs would be relocated or removed, reducing tourist traffic to the fort. Brooks estimated traffic to the fort would decrease by as much as 25 percent under the proposed sign changes.

Lawmakers voting in favor of the bill said the state could not risk losing federal highway funds. They also said the bill would set a guiding policy that would limit the number of requests for new signs coming almost every lawmaking session.

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“The bottom line on this bill is, we brought this in order to take the putting up of signs out of the political realm,” said state Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, a ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

“Unfortunately, over the course of a number of years, who gets a sign has become a matter of who you know and who you can convince to get it done,” Peoples said.  She said the current regime for signs was nearly in conflict with the state’s ban on commercial billboards. Maine is one of only four states to prohibit billboards on highways.

“If we allow this amendment, we may as well not pass the bill, because we will find ourselves in the next Legislature back in the same boat,” Peoples said.  

The bill next faces additional votes in the Senate and the House.

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