AUGUSTA – You can’t get there from here.
Some businesses and town officials fear that old Maine saying could turn out to be true if state lawmakers pass a bill to eliminate dozens of signs on the Maine Turnpike and interstate highways.
Business owners and representatives of communities from Arundel to Lubec blasted the measure Tuesday at a three-hour public hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, saying it would hurt tourism by making it harder for visitors to find rural attractions.
The bill, developed by the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Department of Transportation, seeks to create standards for turnpike and interstate signs and bring Maine into compliance with federal standards that define which attractions merit signs. Officials say Maine could lose millions of dollars in federal funding if it doesn’t meet the standards.
Along the turnpike and interstate highways are three types of signs.
The green signs that mark upcoming exits would not be affected by the legislation. Also unaffected would be the blue “services” signs advertising businesses — such as restaurants, gas stations and tourist attractions. Each business pays $1,500 a year, per sign, to have its logo displayed.
The bill concerns “supplemental guide signs,” which are brown with white lettering and give exit numbers for destinations that aren’t immediately off the highway interchanges. Those signs, like the green directional signs, are publicly funded.
The state’s proposal would alter 30 percent of the supplemental guide signs on the turnpike, Interstate 295 and Interstate 395, a 5-mile road connecting Bangor and Brewer. A total of 68 of the 225 signs would be affected, including 42 that would be removed. The other 26 would be moved to points closer to the advertised regions or attractions.
Peter Mills, executive director of the turnpike authority, and Deputy Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Horn were the only people who spoke in favor of the bill at Tuesday’s hearing.
Mills acknowledged concerns about losing signs but said the state can’t put its federal highway funding in jeopardy. A letter from the Federal Highway Administration in March 2013 said signs are “very critical for the safe and efficient transportation of people and goods” and Maine must meet the federal standards.
The federal sign standard has been in place for years, but Maine has erected signs over the years that do not adhere to it, Mills said.
He said signs are supposed to provide direction to drivers clearly and effectively and should not serve as advertisements for particular businesses, as the federal standard says.
“The federal government has said it’s about traffic, it’s about destinations,” Mills said. “We need policies that apply across the board and uniformly.”
Mills said Maine’s rural nature was taken into consideration when the bill, L.D. 1831, was developed.
Attractions such as universities, national and state parks and major recreational areas qualify for supplemental guide signs if they meet certain guidelines for numbers of visitors and distance from interchanges, the standard says. Many businesses and attractions that don’t qualify for supplemental guide signs instead could buy logo space on the blue service signs, which typically are posted before exits to indicate what service and attractions are available there.
Some towns, including Arundel, Hallowell and Topsham, would lose signs directing drivers to those towns because they have populations of fewer than 10,000 and are not considered major attractions.
Some officials have gone to great lengths to get signs on the turnpike or interstates, including former South Portland City Manager Bernal Allen. After the Maine Mall opened in 1971, the state refused to put a sign for the mall on the the turnpike. So Allen, who became the mall’s first general manager, got the city to rename Payne Road to Maine Mall Road in 1975, and the Maine Mall Road exit sign served the purpose nicely.
Sen. David Burns, a Republican who represents towns in Washington County, said tourism is critical for the county’s economy, and removing signs for places such as Quoddy Head State Park and Roosevelt Campobello International Park, which don’t meet the federal standards because they’re too far from the attractions, would hurt the area.
“We are not necessarily on the way and we depend on signage to attract these visitors,” he said.
Kevin Cormier, co-owner and vice president of Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco, said a brown supplemental guide sign near Exit 36 would be removed under the bill, while similar signs for ski resorts would not. The amusement park pays $3,000 a year to appear on blue “services” signs.
“While it may be that Saco and Old Orchard Beach’s amusement theme parks lose our 6-inch-tall-lettered sign, why are ski resorts that are also visited by hundreds of thousands of people from both in-state and out of state getting much larger signs for free? We are all businesses selling fun recreational opportunities,” Cormier said.
Under the proposed legislation, ski areas with a minimum vertical drop of 1,000 feet and 40 or more maintained trails would qualify for supplemental signs.
Gregory Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, said he opposes the bill because removing signs for smaller ski areas — such as Lost Valley in Auburn — would hurt an industry that plays an important role in the state’s year-round rural economy.
Others expressed concerns about specific signs that would be removed. A sign for Topsham would be removed, prompting town officials to call the proposed regulations too narrow because they wouldn’t allow enough places to have signs.
Todd Shae, town manager of Arundel, said it would be unfair to remove a sign for Arundel, and pointed out that more than 5 miles of the turnpike go through the town. Hallowell officials echoed his concern, saying it is essential for the town’s small businesses that visitors are able to find their way downtown.
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, a member of the Transportation Committee, said it may make sense to enact uniform rules, but remove nonconforming signs as they deteriorate, rather than spend more money to take them down.
The Transportation Committee plans to hold a work session Wednesday afternoon to consider its recommendation on the bill.