Friday, June 1, 2018

Georgia Guide Signs Are Terrible: Why And What Needs To Be Done

Anybody who has attempted to use guide signs to navigate Georgia has probably had a hard time doing it.  It should be pretty obvious to them that GDOT has a pretty bad policy when it comes to guide signs.  Not only do the state planning documents have nothing specific about how to make them correctly, but so many things are wrong with them that they almost serve no purpose.  Furthermore, Georgia has lately been hawking the GPS excuse to make sure that as few guide signs are posted as possible.  The thing is, the state has not maintained them well for years: long before GPS was available to the public.  Add to that the fact that the mileage cap has left holes in functional routes that neither GDOT nor the counties/cities have been willing to sign properly.  While GDOT needs to come up with a strategy to fix and install local road guide signs, first the physician must be healed.


Sloppy installations have been pandemic in Georgia for the past 20 years.

THE NUMEROUS ISSUES WITH GEORGIA'S GUIDE SIGNS

Here are some of the major problems with the guide signs on state highways in Georgia that must be fixed:
  1. Outdated, inconsistent, and insufficient information
  2. Design issues (fonts, margins, text height)
  3. Sign clutter
  4. Route marker design and placement issues
  5. Poor reinforcement on guide sign structures
  6. Contractor standards do not match maintenance standards
  7. Too much route information leading to excess costs and public confusion
  8. Destinations for locations off-system are insufficient or poorly executed
  9. Guide signage is for state routes only, not functional routes
  10. Substandard and inadequate overhead signage
  11. Expressway Signage Problems
  12. GPS Deceit
Outdated, Inconsistent, and Insufficient Information

With few exceptions, it is pretty obvious that most guide signs posted across the state had their traffic engineering done in the 1970's or 1980's.  While a few changes have happened now and then, most signs are replaced in-kind without any updates.  Destinations that are no longer relevant show up on guide signs and/or destinations are not changed when routes are moved.  New communities and cities that have popped up are not addressed in signage, and holes in destinations occur where a destination is signed at some point back, but it is not indicated in turns further down.

Some examples of this include:
  • Posting of irrelevant unincorporated communities over legitimate control cities as destinations when the latter is present
    • This is typically a problem where a route was moved or extended, but guide signage was not updated to reflect this
    • This was the situation on GA 176 up until it was decommissioned with Macland and Lost Mountain used as destinations instead of Powder Springs and Acworth
  • New communities and cities that have popped up are not addressed in signage
    • GDOT has been very slow to post guide signage for Milton, Johns Creek, Sandy Springs, and other new cities across the state: especially along surface state routes
  • Destinations not changed when routes are moved
    • GA 115 still gives mileage to Murrayville despite the fact that GA 115 no longer goes to Murrayville, and guide signs directing traffic to Murrayville have been removed.  This would still be relevant if the latter was not the case
    • GA 53 was moved out of Downtown Jasper (now GA 53 Business) and instead follows GA 108 and 515, but destinations on guide signs do not reflect this change such as posting Fairmount from GA 53 westbound at GA 515 or Dawsonville/Gainesville from GA 515.
    • GA 136 still gives Jasper as a destination despite the fact that no signage is posted where Old GA 108 forks off to Jasper.  
      • Either guide signs should be posted at the intersection that include Jasper or the destination in Dawson County needs to be changed to Talking Rock.
  • Holes in destinations occur where a destination is signed at some point back, but it is not indicated at turns further down
    • Relevant to the conditions described above
    • This is especially true when a destination requires following an interstate
      • In these cases only the control cities for the interstates are shown even if traffic for another route has to follow the interstate (e.g. U.S. 278 between Lithonia and Covington, I-575 between Canton and Marietta)
      • Cases like this would have signs like "Conyers/Covington USE I-20 EAST"

GA 115 was moved to Longbranch Road in 2000, but this distance sign persists giving distance to Murrayville.  If directional signs were posted for Murrayville at the junction with Old Dahlonega Road (Old GA 115), this would be okay.  However, either the signage at Old Dahlonega Road needs to be added, or "Murrayville 10" should probably be replaced with "Cumming 28".  This is one of many examples of outdated signage that persists on Georgia highways.


Using signs like this one above can help cover destination gaps that involve state routes that follow interstates such as GA 5, U.S. 23, U.S. 278, etc.
  
In addition, missing information is a real problem.  A destination is signed at one intersection, but an additional turn required to reach that destination is not.  If you see a sign at the junction of GA 138 and 212 for McDonough, but there is no guide sign where GA 138 joins 155 where an additional turn is required for McDonough, how would you know without GPS?  Signage is routinely not consistent from the first signed instance to the destination.

Design Issues

Georgia has cheaped out for years when it comes to guide signs.  They have had a policy since immemorial that all information must fit into a sign only 48" wide.  That's great, but most cities and towns do not have legends only 5-6 letters long.  Before modern cad sign drawing, this meant cramming the legend together with very narrow kerning while having no margins at all along the edges or between the legend and arrows.  Nowadays, it has made things far worse with the legends condensed to where they are virtually unreadable.  It also means quite a few signs are in Series B...something that is far more difficult to read with mixed case fonts than with all-upper case.  While using Series C is also a cheat, it is far less problematic than cramming a long legend into a small sign with skinny letters.


Even a fool can see that this sign is incorrectly designed.  For one, the punctuation is not necessary, and the legend is crammed into text even skinnier than Series B.  To achieve this either the legend has to be condensed to 91% or the text shrunk to fit (the latter was done).  The height of the sign is also 24" instead of 30", although that remains a common practice in many states with 6" text on signs.


When U.S. 19/129 was moved to the Glenn Gooch By-Pass in Blairsville, this awful signage replaced it.  The arrow placement is completely wrong, destinations are in the wrong order, text is shrunk to fit, margins are wrong, arrows are cut off, the sign height is wrong, and the use of "Brasstown Bald" as a control city is completely wrong (it should be on a separate brown sign).  Absolutely no effort or care is put into making sure the signs are legible and designed to MUTCD specs.  This is in no way compliant, and it should be promptly removed and replaced with TWO appropriate signs.  While this sign will be likely removed in the projected widening project, this is not an old sign.  Signs like this are still be installed all over the state cramming poorly laid out legends into 48" wide sign blanks.

Likewise, Georgia has always used 12" increments per legend with the smallest height 12".  The problem is, that no longer works without looking very crowded when used with mixed-case fonts, and especially lines.  The new MUTCD guide sign standards are very different.  They apply lines between each direction on a destination sign, and they require 18" for 1 line, 30" for 2 lines, and 42" meaning the 12" increments are preserved, but each sign is 6" taller.  For Georgia's sizes of 12", 24", and 36", the text height needs to be reduced to 5" for it to fit properly.  With mixed-case fonts, this includes tails on letters that make these heights look very cramped and harder to read, especially if the line is used.  

Guide signs are not supposed to be designed with a specific target width.  They are supposed to be designed based on the length of the legend.  That means that if a right arrow with Donalsonville is 61.5" wide when used with 6" text height in Series D font at normal kerning, and 6" spacing between the legend and arrow, then a 78" sign must be used.  Not 48", not squeezed into 72" (although an allowance can be made to use Series C font), and not a reduction in margins from 6".  That is how it is supposed to be made.  In some cases, reducing text height might be permissible (4-5" instead of 6"), but compromising the entire design of the sign is not. 


A properly designed "Donalsonville" guide sign with text kerned to 105% (for improved appearance; dimensions did not change).  This sign is 78" x 18".  It maintains a proper 6" gap between the text and the arrow and maintains a minimum 6" margin between legend and margins.


Here is the sign you are more likely to encounter.  This sign is 48" x 12" wide with 3" margins/spacing between legend and arrow.  Series C was condensed by 26%.  The arrow is 6" x 6".  It would be difficult to read at any speed.


Of course, who needs the graphics when you have a real world example of long legends crammed into 48" blanks?  This is GA 285 eastbound at GA 39.  Not only is the legend horribly condensed to the point it is almost illegible, but the state park legend makes it worse.  Seminole State Park should be on a separate brown (preferably trapezoidal) sign.  As you can see, the sign in Blairsville was not an isolated incident.  (Image from Google Street View)

Arrowheads and margins are also a problem.  Arrows tend to have no stem on them at all when the legends or long making them harder to city, while margins tend to only be 1-3" from the sign edge when the MUTCD requirement is that the margins match the height of the text.  That means if the sign has 6" text, the margins are to be at least 6" in height.  Vertical spacing is often totally wonky, and the state has clearly not been making any efforts to redesign signs into larger signs.  Obviously, this approach saves money, but if it's wrong, it's not money saved: it's cutting corners.  

Sign Clutter

Despite the many design issues, Georgia did not used to have a problem with sign clutter on state routes like they do today.  Today, a whole bunch of specific items have been added that have enhanced the sign clutter problem: "Georgia Agritourism" signs, destination signage for colleges, resorts, and museums, added signs for parks, and then on top of that are the silly propaganda signs like "____ County is a Literate Community" or "Georgia Storm Ready".  We can hope that the local schools taught the kids to read or that tornado sirens were installed and working when they come ripping through the area, but it is otherwise redundant information.  At the very least, steps need to be taken to minimize or space out this sign clutter in such a way that the information is relevant without being excessive and does not distract from more important signs like D1-x destination signs, route signs, or signs directing traffic to state parks or other recreation areas.

Some of the worst offenders for sign clutter include the intersections along State Route 515.  Due to tourism, a whole lot of clutter has been added that has created so much excessive signage at intersections like SR 108, SR 52, and U.S. 19/129 that signage is almost worthless.  Information like this needs to be combined in a way to minimize this or outright eliminated.  If GPS really lives up to its hype, you probably do not even need to know how to get to a college, museum, or especially some tourist-oriented sight.  Even if each sign is paid for by the tourist destination, it does not mean they should be done the way it is shown.  


This is a MESS along GA 515 at the GA 52 connector road in Ellijay.  There are several instances there where signs need to be grouped to make them easier to read and remove clutter (such as the state park signs in the background), but foremost these signs in the front need to be combined as shown below:


This is not meant to be an accurate representation of sign order.  It is only meant to show what the signs visible in the first image should look like.  Note the more professional and far less cluttered appearance.  The state park signs are stacked with a wider font and larger text while the "Agritourism" sign is redesigned with separate panels so that instead of using the logo with each sign, there is one header sign used with the plaques for each tourist destination interchangeable.  Green is also changed to blue since green is incorrect.  Blue denotes businesses, which these are.  Both images from Google Street View.

Nothing quite compares to the Georgia Agritourism signs for sign clutter.  A whole sign with the logo has to be posted for each destination meaning that as much as 3-4 signs in a row are posted for some sponsored local tourist destination.  While they are independently funded, the application is atrocious.  If used, these signs should be anything but green (blue or brown should be the background color), and the whole banner for "Georgia Agritourism" should be ONE sign (preferably 72" x 24") that then has space underneath for 1-4 separate 72" x 12" plaques that can be interchanged as needed.  That means if you have two farms on the same road advertising and one closes to the public, you just take the plaque off.  It should be very standardized, easy to read, and should take up as little valuable shoulder space compared with other signs.  Make some "Georgia Agritourism" signs in advance then include in the cost for each sponsored sign enough to make up for the overall assembly.

Route Marker Design and Placement Issues

Georgia has never been exact when it comes to designing route markers to MUTCD specifications, but it has clearly gotten worse over the years.  Assemblies at state route junctions used to be very uniform with through movements posted and signs positioned correctly.  Sign assemblies were sturdy and orderly, and the route signs themselves looked professional and consistent.  Nowadays, not a single route sign is correct.  Here are the issues:
  • Interstate route design
Interstate signs did not used to be an issue for Georgia, and it was commended that they used the state name in installs even though this is no longer an MUTCD standard.  However, the fonts and spacing in the past decade have gotten way worse suggesting that application of the standard highway signs manual is getting sloppy.  Interstate signs can easily be designed with the state name by combining the specifications for the M1-1 interstate sign with the M1-2 interstate business loop sign to add the state name, but text should still be the same height.  
  • U.S. route design
This is one area that has turned disgraceful.  The state has established a 1.5" to 2" offset on the U.S. route shields as well as using 24" signs for three digits when 30" is required.  Series B and condensed fonts are also often used on these signs making them particularly garish and absolutely incorrect.  
  • State route design
Georgia has never had an "official" design for the state route shield, although a general state shape was used from about 1967-1997 that used an approximate shape of the state with an offset of 2" making the state shape 22" square.  This fit text that was at maximum 10" for 1-2 digits and 7"-8" for three digits depending on the number and font used.  It did not, however, match with contractor installs that took the same shape and applied it with an 0.75"-1" offset and used 10-12" text for all signs. 

Today, however, the state shape recommended to contractors is too accurate in that it does not properly fit route numbers, yet no drawings exist to compensate for that.  While it does more accurately represent the state shape, distortion of the state shape is needed to fit proper specification numbers.  So many different variations are used of the state shape, it is apparent that there is no actual standard at all!  The result are garish and often hard to read state route signs: especially since 30" wide signs aren't used for three digits.  Fonts are often condensed, and they are trying to slam 10" text into a sign that is still 22" square!  This desperately needs to be fixed.


The classic/older style of Georgia route signs with the shape and 2" offset dating to 1967.  The text was too small, but the appearance was still professional with text consistently reduced in height as needed to fit the legend.


A bad redesign coupled with no correction of the offset led to horrible condensed signs like this one.  Starting in the 1990's, GDOT attempted to have 10" text slammed into a 20" x 20" state shape.

The recommended solution is a standard drawing for the route sign: preferably something identical or very close to the 1967 design using a 1" offset (not 2") for the state shape and requiring that the 30" x 24" size is used for more than two digits.  Font size should also be 10" and NOT 12" since 12" doesn't actually fit properly, but 10" does.  Doing this would create a professional and consistently legible Georgia route sign.


Compare the improved appearance of these signs.  The former has 10" text positioned 6.5" above the base, a 1" offset so that the state shape is 22", and it uses the 1967 shape.  The 1967 shape is ideal, because its more crude distortion of the state shape is better designed to fit route numbers at normal kerning than the updated versions.  The latter is the same except that the state shape is stretched along the horizontal parts to fit three digits.  The state shape measures 28" x 22" in a 30" x 24" sign.
  • Banner route issues

Another issue is the placement of the special auxiliary (bannered) route INSIDE the route marker.  These are routinely in 2" text, and they are difficult to read at any speed.  While some GDOT districts do use the separate banners, the practice of placing banners such as "BUSINESS", "SPUR" and "CONNECTOR" in small text inside route signs needs to end.  If GDOT used proper 30" x 24" signs for 3-4 digit routes, they could replace the banner with a letter for ALT (A), CONNECTOR (C or Y), LOOP (L), SPUR (S) while keeping separate banners for BUSINESS and BY-PASS.  Preferably, separate banners should be used in all cases since there is a degree of confusion as to what the letters mean: especially when "A" doesn't always mean "ALT" and "S" can be mistaken for "SOUTH".



Bad state route design is on full display here.  The first sign is an "official" install with heavily condensed text, a difficult to read banner in 2" text, and a state shape that is too accurate on the eastern edge to properly fit the digits.  The second is a contractor install for the same route.  Note the heavily distorted state appearance, because Georgia will not develop standard drawings for this sign that creates an "official" state shape.  


For awhile, Georgia was making U.S. signs almost correctly.  Apparently as a way to match the thick offset on the state route markers, the U.S. route signs were incorrectly redesigned with a wider offset that appears to be somewhere between 1-2".  This needs to end.  Unless Georgia adopts California's cutout U.S. route design, there is no reason that they cannot design the correct M1-4 design with text in Series D with 12" text in Series D and the 1/2" offset of the U.S. shape.

Poor Reinforcement on Guide Sign Structures

GDOT may feel that they are saving money by not purchasing any framing straps or z-bars on guide signs, but they are creating a serious roadside hazard: especially in areas where pedestrians might be present.  With the uptick of strong windstorms as well as Georgia's practice of posting guide signs on a single post, it is unacceptable that any guide sign 48" or more not have these stabilizing bars whether it is an old u-channel post, square post, perforated framing straps, or preferably z-bars.  While their standards do say this, they are NOT followed except when a contractor install is being used.  Maintenance rarely ever uses these materials, although some districts actually do add these materials to highway guide signs.  Framing straps used on route signs are also inadequate with no vertical members used meaning signs get knocked out of place more often.


Poor reinforcement leads to signs breaking loose and flipping over: especially with larger, heavier signs with a greater wind load such as D1-x and D2-x guide signs.  If this occurs around pedestrians or traffic, it could lead to serious injuries and, of course, lawsuits.

With the advent of perforated framing straps that allow the sign not to be bolted directly to the post, any new guide sign installs should include these framing straps while those signs 72" or larger should trade up to the sturdier z-bars that keep the sign straight and from moving while keeping the sign itself bolted to something besides the post itself.  In addition, these guide signs should have more holes.  A 48" x 36" sign supported by two bolts is NOT sturdy.  However, if that same 48" x 36" sign had two 48" perforated framing straps bolted to the post with the sign itself bolted to the straps with at least four bolts or screws, it is less likely to break a bolt and come loose and more likely to maintain its intended position.  When a sign is bolted directly to the signpost, it puts strain on the bolt while the sign itself cannot be screwed tightly enough without damaging the sign itself.  This is why this practice needs to end.  In fact, it might be worth considering to use framing straps for most signs for the same reason since quite a few diamond warning signs are found upside down with the top bolt broken off.  New York State has long followed this practice as well as Florida.


This sign assembly in Virginia is supported by two z-bars.  A couple route signs with short posts are then bolted to the back of the z-bars to allow route and D2-x distance signage to be combined.  While the practice of putting route signs over guide signs like this should not be routine, there are many instances where this makes sense when space is restricted such as T-intersections in mountainous terrain or in congested areas with few locations to place signs.

Furthermore, a heavy use of z-bars and framing straps is a way that GDOT could do more with less.  Quite a lot can be stacked onto 1-2 posts with z-bars, and combination assemblies would be sturdier using them.  In addition, very large guide signs can be pieced together with z-bars meaning, for instance, if an 84" x 30" sign is needed, it can be pieced together as two 30" x 30" pieces and one 24" x 30" wide piece: the same size sheet metal used for two curve warning signs and one speed limit sign.  This means that guide signs could reasonably be made from scraps while the public would not know the difference.



Here are a couple examples of how GDOT could put together signs with z-bars or perforated framing straps.  Note that in both proposed designs that the sign itself is not bolted to the main posts: only the z-bars or framing straps are.  Additional mounting holes on the 60" guide sign will also provide greater support and stability.

GDOT Is Not Following Its Own Standards and Has A Different Standard For Contractors

Something is very wrong when a contractor specifies signs a certain way only for maintenance to come back and use something smaller or inferior when the sign wears out.  If a contractor installs a 78" x 42" guide sign with z-bars, and it is replaced with a 48" x 36" guide sign with no z-bars, this is plain wrong.  GDOT should have clearly written standards for the contractors then follow those same standards themselves.  There should be little to no noticeable difference between sign installations: at least done as-is.  Likewise, there are serious quality control issues with contractor installs in that there seems to be no inspection procedure to correct errors and reject faulty signs.  Georgia used to be very exacting about contractor-made signs, but has gotten very lax in the past 15-20 years.

The same issue exists with sign assemblies that are mounted on framing straps without vertical elements.  The purpose of framing straps is to FRAME the signs so that they hold in place.  The signs themselves should not be bolted to moving parts at all: they should be on a vertical strap that is, itself, bolted to the horizontal straps.  The state's own manual shows it this way.  This method is also needed to assure that signs are aligned properly so that banners are horizontally centered with route signs.


While this is an older photo, it is a classic example of improperly applied framing straps.  The banners on top are not centered over the route signs while the arrows are not aligned underneath due to the horizontal straps supporting the signs at different lengths.  Also note the assembly is crooked.  If the signs were all bolted to vertical members separate from the horizontal members, this would be less of an issue.  The use of z-bars for horizontal parts instead of framing straps might also help.


This fictional assembly addresses this problem.  Included here are two 54" vertical straps bolted onto three 36" horizontal straps.  The 36" length is chosen universally to allow adjustment to any width of route signs so that 30" wide markers can be used without compromising the assembly.  Note how the signs are mounted about 6" above the post itself, route signs are lined up horizontally, and the whole assembly appears more balanced.  (Image from Google Street View).


Notice the assembly above compared to the diagram immediately above.  It is designed exactly to the specifications shown here with adjustments made for the fact that one route marker is 24" wide and one 30" wide.  A 1" gap is shown between each sign.

Too Much Route Information Leading to Excess Costs and Public Confusion

The garish condition of the route sign assemblies can partially be attributed to cutting corners to post so many routes.  Not only should the state overlaps of U.S. route be removed, but many other useless overlaps should go such as GA 53/108 in Pickens County, GA 15/78 in Treutlen County, GA 70/154 in Fulton County, GA 2/52 in Gilmer County, and the list goes on.  Georgia needs to follow the K.I.S.S. principle, and get rid of as many overlaps as possible.  This includes renumbering orphaned stretches of state highway, or (gasp) duplicating routes.  Arkansas typically has multiple disconnected sections of the same route number.  Rather than post an overlap just for continuity if two sections of a route were unrelated, just create internal section numbers.  Can you imagine if GA 177, the last remaining disconnected highway, were posted along other routes just to join the two parts?


Here is an example of a highway with way too much information.  In truth, ONLY U.S. 23 and U.S. 441 should be displayed or assigned to these routes.  GA 15 is a state overlap placeholder for U.S. 441 in the area and GA 365 is an unnecessary overlap that has taken precedence over U.S. 23.  The result is massive confusion over which highway carries what number.  Hint: giving "U.S. 23" as the route number will not lead a dispatcher to this road.

A much better strategy is needed to take care of gaps and overlaps.  For instance, instead of GA 70 and 154's convoluted route in South Fulton County, trailblazers should simply be installed (e.g. TO SOUTH/NORTH 70/154) instead of sending drivers on a needless wild goose chase just to avoid a decommissioned section.  If, for instance, that entire section of 154 is taken off-system, the independent portion in Coweta County should either get a whole new route number (e.g. GA 387) or just exist as a disconnected portion of the route (e.g. GA 154, Section 2).  The same goes for GA 2 between Cisco and Young Harris, GA 78 between Soperton and Wadley, and GA 108 between Tate and GA 515.  The general rule of thumb is that, if at all possible, as few routes as possible should be on the same stretch of highway, and none should be there as a state number placeholder for a U.S. route.


GA 154 is mostly riding sidesaddle with other routes since it was relocated several times over the past 30 years.

Fixing this issue will mean that better sign installs can be used.  Instead of the cheap jobs that GDOT is doing where they place M3-x directional banners over a single route sign and M6-4 double arrow, the assembly can be done correctly with all signs shown, including the framing straps needed to properly support them.


Aside from that horrific route sign, this is actually better than most in that they included two M6-1 signs instead of a single M6-4 double arrow under the route sign.  However, at the time this was posted there were three routes along this road meaning that this unneccessary overlap took precedence over U.S. 76, which should have been posted here.

Destinations For Locations Off-System Are Insufficient Or Poorly Executed

The posting of guide signs on county roads and city streets is a slightly different topic discussed in the next section, but there are cases where it makes sense to guide traffic off-system in cases where:

  1. The shortest and best route involves forking onto a local road or
  2. A destination is off-system such as an incorporated town or state park 

Unfortunately, the signage for this purpose is rare, and becoming even more rare than it used to be.  It was never consistent to start with, but in recent years guidance to off-system destinations is vanishing, and GDOT is increasingly forcing the local agencies involved to fund this signage: especially for any government agencies or institutions that are not related to GDOT.  Why is this so?  They are not capable of planning these signs, and GDOT has the resources available to do it.  They just do not WANT to do it.


What's NOT there: GA 166 westbound approaching Chapel Hill Road.  While a trailblazer is shown for I-20, this is also a minor arterial road connecting directly from a major state route to Douglasville.  Why is it not signed that way?  Chapel Hill Road is a state highway-quality county road, and this is just one of many examples of where signs like this are needed.

An example of the shortest and best route is where a federal-aid eligible county road junctions with a state road, and following that road cuts off significant time and distance vs. using the state route.  The only issue with this is that, although this may be true, the road may have issues that need addressing.  If trucks are restricted, the truck restrictions need to be posted along with the guide signs.  If the road is unpaved or extremely substandard, then obviously that road is not the shortest and best route.  If the road is functionally local, such instances of posting guide signs like this are rare and should involve either an established truck route or a functional classification mismatch meaning only a short stretch like that is used.  Another issue is the presence of additional turns along that functional route.  Who will post and maintain that?  The next section will address that.


In Pennsylvania and Virginia, it is routine to have D1-x signs and route assemblies posted where a secondary highway junctions with a primary highway.  Why can't these be posted where major county routes junction with state routes in Georgia?

Another issue is where a destination is off-system.  If you have a town with over 4,000 residents such as Euharlee, guide signs should be posted to it both at the best local road junction and along every turn to reach that town.  The same goes for state parks or historic sites, which are often reached through off-system roads.  In Georgia, not everything can be efficiently reached on a state route.  The state highway system is becoming increasingly archaic, and it is not functionally lining up with the shortest and best routes in many cases: especially in the Atlanta area and parts of North Georgia.  Since Georgia lacks a sizeable farm-to-market system that gives every town and community reasonable access to the state highway system, this means that the guide signs that are in place are not only substandard, but not entirely effective.

Guide Signage is for State Routes Only, Not Functional Routes

What is a functional route?  A functional route is the roadway as it is determined by functional classification instead of ownership.  Functional classification consists of six basic categories with subcategories for urban and rural.  They include interstate, freeways/expressways, arterials, collectors, and local.  Non-local roads in the state consist of the following categories and ratios:

  • 31% of the road system in Georgia is non-local (interstates, freeways, arterials, collectors)
  • 23% of the road system consists of federal-aid eligible roads, excluding urban collectors
  • 3% of the local road network consists of minor or principal arterials, the highest category below freeway, expressway, or interstate
  • 58% of roads are classified as interstate, freeway, arterial, or rural major collector are owned by local governments
  • Another 5% of the road network could be classified as "local connecting"
    • This means local roads that are not classified as either collector or arterial, but still serve as a connecting road in some category or serve as an access road to a significant public purpose such as a community, park, lake, or government facility.
    • They are usually built to the standards of federal-aid eligible roads
    • They often serve as a defacto detour when a roadway of higher functional classification is unpaved or closed to the public
  • GDOT is responsible for only 14.3% of the highway system (18,000 miles) with that ratio dropping as the mileage cap continues to phase out major collector roads on the state system


Guide signage installed at the intersection of Blue Ridge Highway (Old U.S. 76) and Skeenah Gap Road like this is an extreme rarity around the state.


This example applies the logic of functional routes to guide signage.  This is all that is needed along Mobile Road (a major collector route) approaching Madola Road (also major collector): a trailblazer to GA 5 along with guide signage to Epworth and Blue Ridge.  Before it would be a W2-2 sign with a W16-8 for Madola Road.  The road ahead is functionally local, and it does not connect to anything shown here.


A typical proposed rural application where a major county road approaches a state highway junction.  This signage is proposed for Luthersville Road (a major collector) with GA 362 in Meriwether County.  Luthersville Road connects GA 85 near Gay to Luthersville where GA 54 picks up the rest of the route to Hogansville.  Shouldn't this have guide signs? (Image from Google Street View)

This means that there is a major imbalance between functional routes and ownership.  The state has far too little responsibility to spurn the installation and maintenance of guide signs along local roads.  At present, there are even several freeways maintained by the counties in Chatham, Cobb, and Gwinnett Counties.  GDOT has shown no interest in taking over these roads as well despite the fact that all are at least designated as principal arterial and constructed to levels adequate for state takeover.  Local governments have no special funds or assistance for this purpose, and none of these major local roads are even assigned a county highway number.  Aside from the state taking over 16.7% of the highway system, how can this problem be fixed?  This will be addressed in the section "Potential Solutions to Guide Sign Issues".

A Lack of Trailblazers

Sometimes it is not always clear on how to reach a route from another road.  The solution for that has always been posting "TO" (M4-5) signage over a route sign with an arrow to indicate the direction that must be traveled to reach that highway.  Even if nothing else is posted, this is often the most important sign that is needed: especially in cases where there are only a few access points such as an interstate or freeway/expressway.  This is something that routinely should be posted both on and off-system, and it should be used also at junction of minor state routes to guide traffic to the major route.  Sign assemblies that include these should also be designed so that if the highways are decommissioned, the trailblazer either replaces those signs or remains since it is already in place.  Often a trailblazer can be far more effective than posting a route sign itself, and in many cases a shorter state route such as a "SPUR" or "CONNECTOR" should instead be posted with appropriate trailblazers instead of posting the route itself. 


This edited image from Google Street View of Cove Road approaching Burnt Mountain Road (Old GA 108) in Jasper shows the types of trailblazers needed along functional routes.  Trailblazers more often than not should be posted on local roads, and more often than not posted BY GDOT, because counties and cities are generally not equipped for this purpose.  While most trailblazer assemblies would not be this elaborate or have this many signs, this information is often more important than guide signs that show cities and towns.  Heavily posted trailblazers can help combat distracted driving.  (Image from Google Street View)

Substandard and Inadequate Overhead Signage

Another issue of note that is very problematic is the style of overhead signage on span wires.  At the very least, it is hard to read and flimsy with way too much reliance on lane control signs to determine direction.  This is problematic, because option lanes make it difficult to post routes in that direction.  The whole purpose for overhead signage is that there is no room anywhere on the ground to post signs due to the presence of numerous obstacles such as buildings, parking lots, sidewalks, and trees/shrubs.  These obstacles are routinely in the way of guide signs: especially in urban areas.

Using this cheap approach to signage is not really working.  While it has been used for decades, much of the time the signs are not lined up properly on the wires, and it turns into clutter quickly: especially when state overlaps are posted with U.S. routes.  In addition, the text height on these signs is not MUTCD compliant for overheads.  This is an issue where GDOT truly needs to heavily invest in replacing these span wires with full overheads on sign bridges.


This intersection of Holcomb Bridge Road (GA 140) and Alpharetta Hwy (GA 9/120) is a worst case scenario when it comes to span wires.  Overloaded with signs, it is hanging at a diagonal angle and is very confusing in that R3-5x signs are not placed below the route direction.  No other information such as road names or destinations is shown, and lane movements are not defined for the transition to GA 92.  It has been a typical practice since the 1970's, but it is ugly and needs to come to an end.  (Image from Google Street View)

Using sign bridges at intersections is not unheard of.  Many other states do it.  In fact, the most updated Standard Highway Signs manual has introduced a new series of signs just for that purpose: D15-1.  D15-1 signs combine the overhead lane control signs (R3-5, R3-5a, R3-6) with guide signs.  Even if instances exist where lane control cannot be used, a traditional overhead with just a right or left arrow should still suffice.  This is how GDOT should be handling intersections with overhead signage, and this includes signage like this along local roads.


The MUTCD recently added D15-1 signs, which place the lane control signs into guide signs.  While the sign examples could probably be wider here to better define lane movements, it is far easier to follow what is needed when everything is grouped together like this.  In addition, destinations could be added by doing it this way as well as the information regarding the name change.  Traffic on Holcomb Bridge Road/GA 140 eastbound who make no turns are suddenly on Crossville Road/GA 92.  If lane control signs are still desired, then these signs should have simple directional arrows underneath.  Of course, to install this, a sign bridge will need to replace the span wires.  (Modified image from Google Street View)

Expressway Signage Problems

GDOT has never had it all together with any guide signs, and design flaws have been caught by interested parties quite often with Georgia's interstate signs.  This was made worse by the state's deliberate insistence on using standards that are not MUTCD compliant, and are not consistent with other states such as keeping the sign panels all the same height, using Series C for around 20 years instead of Series E(M), narrow kerning on legends, etc.  

However, the issue is worse in regards to the county-maintained freeway system.  Gwinnett County's freeway signs are not at all MUTCD compliant, and they were installed that way new using smaller text and incorrect fonts (Series C/D instead of E(M)).  Signage in Chatham County was installed in the 90's and is deteriorating since the local government there lacks the resources to overhaul the signage.  At this rate, the only way it will be fixed is if the county managed to get the state to take over those roads.  However, it is not the only way to address this given an approach that will be discussed further.


Signage on eastbound Sugarloaf Parkway here appears to be only 60" x 24" with no exit arrows, text condensed to Series B, etc.  This was a FREEWAY, and if the funds were there to build the freeway the sign structures should have likewise been built correctly.  This road is maintained by Gwinnett County, but GDOT should have made sure that the signage structures were to MUTCD standards before approving funding to build it.

Another issue is signage on surface expressways.  What is posted is way too small.  6" text is acceptable for two-lane highways, but four lane divided expressways with a 65 MPH speed call for larger signs.  Signs along these roads should feature 8" text with signs scaled at heights of 24", 42", and 60" for 1, 2, and 3 lines, respectively.  Fonts should be in Series D or E with no kerning.  E(M) may be used, but Series E is preferred to reduce the halo effect.  Overhead sign gantries at major intersections should also be routine: especially in areas where a large number of guide signs are clustered along the shoulder.



Compare the existing signage for GA 515 approaching the Cherry Log turnoff with the proposed 8" signage.  The existing sign is on a 48" x 12" sign with 6" text, and is very hard to read at 65 MPH.  The replacement proposed here features 8" text in Series E spaced out at 105% with a 10" Type B Arrow.  This is how guide signage needs to be on surface expressways like this.  (Images from Google Street View).

Intersection Realignments

Not all intersections should just be fixed with guide signs.  In some cases, the whole intersection needs to be realigned to adjust it to align properly with the functional route.  This can be as simple as turning T-intersections into 90 degree turns to as complex as rebuilding the intersection so that a previous turn is replaced with a continuous roadway.  Most local road intersections were not built with functional classification in mind.  In this case, guide signage may be installed in the interim, but any locations that are discovered that include unnecessary intersections that slow traffic on a continuous route, they should be realigned or reconstructed.


The intersection of Frogtown Road and Lewis School road in Lumpkin County is an example of an operational change needed to align the roadway with a function route.  Frogtown serves as an eastern by-pass of Dahlonega and is functionally classified as a major collector while Lewis School Road is local.  Rather than posting additional guide signs here, a simple restriping of the intersection with new regulatory and warning signs should correct this issue.

GPS Myths

A myth keeps being perpetuated that guide signs are no longer needed because of the presence of GPS.  First, using GPS while driving constitutes distracted driving.  Since it is now illegal in Georgia to use cell phones except hands-free, how will people find anything without guide signs or breaking the law?  GPS has led drivers into bodies of water and fields while it has also tragically led truckers onto unsafe bridges that were heavily damaged or collapsed as a result.  While common sense certainly applies, part of the problem is that drivers in Georgia have been unable to rely on guide signs to get around the state: nothing new.

Since guide signs that already exist are inaccurate, hard to read, not posted frequently enough, and they are never posted on major local functional routes, they are effectively useless off of the interstates.  Finding anything in the state has forced drivers to rely completely on mapping tools, because the state and local governments have both refused to properly invest in guide signs to advertise the shortest and best route.  In other words, this was a problem before Garmin and Waze were ever sold to the public.  Heavy use of guide signs is NOT a problem according the MUTCD, and we should have a lot more in the state of Georgia.  Perhaps they cannot all be installed in a year, but a properly executed procedure to correct this could greatly improve visible and permanent navigation devices while cutting down on clutter.

Remember that directional guide signs are not just a replacement for GPS.  They are there to ADVERTISE the shortest and best routes.  The public does not have inside knowledge.  They do not automatically know the road conditions ahead, the functional classification of the road, unusual traffic conditions (e.g. right turn only), or if a bridge on that road might be unsafe.  Just like when a route number is assigned to a major road, guide signs directing traffic onto roads are typically posted on roads that are the shortest, fastest, or best constructed or to inform traffic of what road they are approaching and where to go at a junction.  Obviously, these signs are not going to be posted at the end of a residential street or low-volume dead-end road, but it is perfectly acceptable and should be required to post these signs on collector and arterial roads that are constructed to acceptable highway standards.  This includes paved county roads and city streets constructed with proper geometry, lane width, and shoulders as well as some that are substandard, but provide the only suitable route over a long distance.  Even if a road is closed to trucks or is partially unpaved, that is not always a reason to omit guide signs.  Simply adding the truck restriction or advance warning of an unpaved road is an acceptable way to handle it.

Now that all the issues are laid out, it is time to explore how to fix these problems.  

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS TO GUIDE SIGN ISSUES

One thing that must be made very clear right away is that the decentralized approach to guide signs is not going to work to fix these issues.  While centralization of all traffic control has already been discussed, full centralization is not required to fix guide sign issues alone.  However, a dedicated fund for this work, a very project-oriented approach, and a change in attitude about what constitutes a highway and how much the state should be helping must be done to make this work.  While prioritizing the replacement of guide signs on state routes is important, expanding this work to include a complete study of every road that needs them on or off-system is the better approach.  It allows these signs to be integrated on both systems.

In other words, these issues cannot be fixed with routine maintenance.  They are going to require the hiring of one or more private engineering firms to review what is in place, and these firms need to conduct studies to determine what is needed, unbounded by jurisdiction.  Where guide signs already exist, this may involve:

  1. Changing route numbers where it might cause confusion
  2. Removing duplicate route designations
  3. Switching out or adding control cities at intersections
  4. Removing redundant or unnecessary guide signs
  5. As mentioned before, using larger signs of up to 10" text (8" is typically required on freeways and expressways on ground mounted signs)
  6. Designing better route assemblies
  7. Relocating signs to be closer or further from an intersection
  8. Replacing span wire overheads with larger D15-1 or freeway-style guide signs.

By beginning it as a project, this also allows local roads to be studied without placing the liability directly on GDOT or using any maintenance funds from either GDOT or any of the local governments.  For all intents and purposes, GDOT and the local governments must look at the highway system by function and not ownership, and each GDOT district should sit down with the local governments and these firms to iron out details on guide sign locations to coincide and cooperate with road conditions and restrictions once these initial studies are done.  The private firms should also use these studies as a means of developing guide sign standards for the state to eventually be included in a badly needed state MUTCD supplement.  That means that each firm involved must work with the state to decide specific designs for each sign that is not otherwise specified in the MUTCD or differs in some way from the MUTCD (such as text height).  These projects will introduce new practices not currently in place, and they will fill holes around the state where signage is missing.  This article further describes how to institute a regional guide sign program.


Alvaton Road, a major collector road in Meriwether County, connects GA 362 at GA 74/85 to Luthersville and GA 54.  It is a county gap of a continuous route with only one turn.  Posting junction route and guide signs with an adjustment of any existing warning or regulatory signs in the project vicinity is a necessary step to improving the functionality of Georgia roads.  Although the road is county and bans trucks does not mean it should not be posted as an alternate route for lighter vehicles.  

In addition, fixing the guide sign issue will not just be about putting guide signs among existing signs.  Usually, this work will involve the replacement, addition or relocation of other signs in the vicinity such as intersection warning signs, speed limit signs, and any other signs that are in a position that did not account for the addition of directional guide signs.  Furthermore, since most of these roads are not numbered routes, it will be necessary to add either advanced intersection warning signs (W16-8) or advanced intersection guide signs (D3-2) as a stand-in for route signs since the name functions as the route designation.  Posting of county route numbers should be considered in the future, but before something like that is done, these issues all need to be addressed properly and effectively.  Once all guide signs are reconstructed to the new standards and built to proper specifications, a case-by-case program to determine county routes should be done: especially as a means of keeping a route assigned along decommissioned routes.  The use of old alignment route signage, however, should be considered as part of the overall program and will be discussed in a later post.


A proposal under development will describe special signage for old alignments of state and U.S. highways that will range from single identifiers past a junction with a state route to continuous trailblazer-style signage posted along an old alignment with junctions of state highways and major local roads.  This example is for Old U.S. 23 (Old Cornelia Highway) in Hall County where it junctions with GA 52.  Signage features a reverse color scheme with a white legend on black background to not only give an antique look, but to make it look different and less important than official state routes.

Using functional routes instead of jurisdiction should be the method used to design a total guide sign overhaul.  If a roadway is functionally local, most of the time no signage will be needed but there are cases where that is not true, and these situations must be identified as well as why a roadway that is not a collector or arterial is important enough to warrant guide signs, and to what purpose they are needed.  Some examples of roadways that are functionally local that do justify directional and route (junction/trailblazer) signs include:

  • Old GA 5: Cherry Log
    • Portion from Bates to Lucius Road 
  • Old U.S. 441: Lakemont
    • Portion from Tiger to U.S. 441 at Terrora Circle
  • Newport Road: Fannin County
    • Portion from Doublehead Gap Road to Aska Road
    • Serves as the only paved alternative to Big Creek Road and Doublehead Gap Road
  • Lower Union Hill Road: Cherokee County
    • Portion from Sugar Pike Road to East Cherokee Drive
  • Kiutuestia Creek Road: Union County
    • Portion from U.S. 76/GA 515 to Blue Ridge Highway (Old U.S. 76)
  • Tommy Irvin Drive (Old GA 115): Habersham County
  • Rock Spring Road: Banks County
    • More direct and better constructed route than Wynn Lake Road (which is partially unpaved)
  • Coots Lake Road: Polk County
    • Springdale Road to U.S. 278/GA 101
    • More direct and better constructed route from Braswell to U.S. 278 and Rockmart than Springdale Road

This section of Old GA 5 in Cherry Log had a few trailblazers installed when the road was relocated in 1989.  However, as a business loop through the unincorporated community, better and updated signage is needed.

In order to fix guide sign issues, a protocol needs to be established on how to deal with each intersection, and each intersection or condition must be analyzed by a traffic study.  The areas to study include:


  • Intersections of state highways with other state highways
  • Intersections of local arterials and collectors as well as local connecting roads meeting specific conditions
    • These intersections usually will include D1-xa signs guiding traffic to nearby towns and communities
    • These intersections will also typically include trailblazers directing traffic to the nearest state/U.S./interstate route, if applicable
    • Any special brown or blue destination signs should be worked into these intersections
  • Intersections of state highways with local arterial and collector roads
    • These intersections usually will include D1-xa signs showing state highway destinations and guidance onto the local route if appropriate
    • These intersections will also include at least M2-1 junction signs with any applicable route signs with directional route signs installed on higher volume roads
    • Trailblazers should also be posted to any major arterials in the vicinity such as interstates or GRIP corridors
  • Intersections where traffic is guided to points of interest off of the state highway system
    • This is typically for state parks, lake access, historical sites, or any other public facility such as a community college
  • Stream crossings where posting of bridge memorial plaques or stream name (I-3) signs are justified
  • City limits, county lines, state lines, and unincorporated communities
    • Counties and cities should be notified if they choose to add a seal to the jurisdictional boundary sign, but designs should be consistent in every jurisdiction with messages limited to just the name of the jurisdiction or "WELCOME TO" the name of the jurisdiction.
    • In rural areas and along local roads, county line signs should include both the name of the county being entered and the name of the county being left
    • Unincorporated community boundaries are loosely defined, but if they serve as destinations on guide signs, as junctions of functional routes, or function on a level similar to a city or town they should typically be posted with a standard design
  • Intersections where trailblazers to the nearest highway are justified
    • This may direct traffic onto a functionally local road, especially if it involves an interstate interchange

Minor collectors should have signage in many cases: especially when the roadway is very long, and it should be requirement that federal-aid eligible roads, especially arterials, have all necessary route and guide signage outside of built-up areas.  Urban collectors do not need typically need directional and trailblazer signage, but plenty of exceptions exist: especially if the roadway is a truck route or serves some other regional purpose or a confusing intersection with a major route necessitates route and guide signs.  No roadway class should be viewed as entirely exempt from signage.

POSSIBLE MAINTENANCE SOLUTIONS

These guide and route signs could all be perfectly designed, perfectly planned, and perfectly installed, but they will stop being useful as soon as they stop being maintained.  It is clear that local governments are not committed to maintaining anything like this, so a strategy for their maintenance is needed.  This can be everything from:

  • A small fund set aside by GDOT to provide replacement of damaged signs and knockdowns inbetween guide sign projects
    • This can be handled directly by GDOT or indirectly by having the local jurisdiction pull the original sign plans and pay a contractor to replace the sign where GDOT will reimburse for the work if it is produced and re-installed according to the original plans
  • An "insurance policy" that is paid by every county each year that is put into a special fund used to pay for total replacement of signs damaged by vandalism, premature sign failure, storms, and vehicle accidents
    • Incidents that require replacement of any signs or mounting devices within a reasonable 10-15 year span will be covered by the policy
    • Unusued funds will be put toward future guide sign upgrade projects on local roads
  • A reorganization of responsibilities for traffic control devices that directs more resources and funding to off-system signage (explained in a separate post).
  • Use of cheaper materials for local installs
    • This includes wood posts and plywood sign panels in lieu of steel and aluminum in areas with low traffic volumes and populations
    • Design, width, and reflectivity should not be compromised
    • However, text height may be reduced to 5" from 6" from roads with speed limits of 45 MPH or less in rural areas and 4" on roads with speed limits of 30 MPH or less

On the last point, the answer is that traffic control responsibilities should be combined as much as possible to free up funds and to organize resources so that maintenance of guide signs as well as all other traffic control devices is kept up to the same standards as initial installation as much as possible with the least state involvement.  Large, heavy equipment and special materials that are not routine in the budgets of small counties or cities can be better managed when shared across many jurisdictions while this will be difficult for a majority of local jurisdictions to fund or install on their own.

IT IS TIME TO DO THIS RIGHT

Georgia is not a poor or low population state.  The gas tax was raised, and GDOT has comparatively little responsibility for roads in contrast to many other states along the East Coast.  It is time to plan, install, and maintain guide signs much better than they currently are.  This means replacing all of the thousands of substandard signs on state routes with wider, larger, better designed, and more legible signs while eliminating confusion as much as possible.  However, this also means truly rethinking the process and bringing local governments on board so that Georgia's highway system is less focused on ownership and more on function.  This means that thousands of miles of county roads and city streets that are constructed to support it should be properly signed with guide signs as well: a process that can be handled by using a complete study of both state and local roads based on the criteria laid out in this post.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Simple Solution to Make Georgia's Roads A Lot Better

One of the issues I am hearing about these days is that GDOT is contracting out more and more of their operations to private firms.  This has raised costs and reduced maintenance levels significantly, especially in regards to road striping and guardrail repairs.  Because the state has worked to tighten its belt to reduce the overhead costs, it has resulted in the loss of equipment as well as skilled, valuable employees that knew their craft.  If GDOT has reached a point where they can barely man a maintenance crew, why not just consolidate with the local agencies for this purpose?  Local agencies are having similar issues with this, but if the remaining employees are combined and equipment does not have to be duplicated for the same roads in the same county, would that not help?  On top of this, if GDOT does this it can lead to a tradeoff with the local governments that would be mutually beneficial to both parties and lead to much, much better roads.  This plan is far less involved than any other plan in that it makes no ownership changes while swapping road maintenance to play off each agency's strengths.


More needs to be done with less.  In this image, the bridge approach lacks any warning signage (object markers), and the guardrails are both outdated and dangerous.  Perhaps if the counties were boosted with state-aid funds and better oversight of safety improvements, this could become far less common on both county and state roads.

A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL EXCHANGE: HOW IT WORKS

This plan involves four primary steps:

  1. Consolidate road maintenance with counties, putting counties in charge of non-technical routine maintenance on all state routes, including within cities.
  2. Pay per-mile payments to the counties for this purpose, but keep back a retainer of around 25% of those payments to be used by the state on county-maintained roads for state-supervised local traffic control and safety improvements
  3. Place all county roads and major city streets under supervision of GDOT traffic operations for the purpose of planning and overseeing traffic control with the state providing direct funding and/or furnishing materials for traffic signs and pavement markings on federal-aid eligible and non-federal aid minor collector roads.
  4. Decentralize GDOT's traffic operations division into 7-12 separate units.  These units could also become a separate agency from GDOT, if needed.
Consolidating Road Maintenance: Greater Reliance On the Counties

Most counties in Georgia have what they need to maintain roads if that work does not involve a traffic engineer.  They are typically very good about paving roads, repairing bridges, patching potholes, and keeping the weeds down in the summertime.  While some do rely on contractors themselves, this would be less necessary if more resources were available to them.  Still, a lot is expected of counties with little return when state-aid is only 20% of state funding.  Inversely, with 80% of the funding, GDOT does not have enough road responsibility.  Why is the state not tapping a valuable resource when counties are all duplicating services with the state?  While most counties are not structured to provide technical expertise to the state's road system, they can certainly do many other activities on behalf of the state such as pothole patching, mowing/brush cutting, winter maintenance, and a host of other road repairs as long as those decisions do not involve engineering judgment.  However, since most counties lack an engineer, and those that do have too many other responsibilities, it is not best for counties to be providing full road maintenance services: not on state contracted roads nor their own roads.  However, what the state isn't able to do the counties can.  Guardrail repairs?  The state calls up the county to fix a guardrail.  Striping crew?  The state can loan equipment on a per diem basis to each county unless the county can afford to have their own in-house.  Signs or signals are down?  The county can get to them faster than the state can, although in this case some coordination with the state is needed.  This also removes the complication of determining the responsible party where a state and local road intersect.


The state is paying too much for striping while local governments are still struggling to get striping on farm-to-market roads like this one.

Even if every county in the state was not participating, those counties with higher populations are certainly suited to take over these duties from the state.  Cobb, Gwinnett, Bibb, Richmond, Chatham, and Muscogee are all large enough that their public works departments could probably independently handle state road maintenance even if the state provided no oversight or assistance.  However, most will not be able to participate in such a program without the state taking a larger technical role.  


Counties like Cobb are better capitalized to take over road maintenance from GDOT with little state assistance, but this is not so much the case in other counties with smaller tax bases like Walker below that need a more direct approach to technical matters.  However, both would benefit equally.


Consolidating road maintenance in this way also has an added benefit of restoring county crews in Metro Atlanta counties where the county road department was reduced or abolished to divide the counties into cities.  Perhaps if counties like Fulton were contracted to maintain state roads, they could also form agreements with certain cities to provide routine maintenance services on certain roads or in certain lower population cities such as Chattahoochee Hills.  Otherwise, the cities could provide these same services on behalf of the counties in these places, although cities should have to have a population of at least 40,000 or more before they should be permitted to contract maintenance of state routes on behalf of the county.  Very small cities are not equipped for that purpose: especially if there are freeways or interstates running through the city.

Per-Mile Payments to Counties

Counties would see a huge boost in available resources if they were paid per-mile to maintain state-owned roads passing through their borders.  This would pay for them to do far more with less.  GDOT would simply expand the per-mile payments they already provide to the cities to all of the counties and transfer existing state employees to work for the county government with previous agreements on wages/benefits retained, but attrition put into place so that future employees work for the county government.  Ultimately, all roads across the state would be maintained by the local government.  

Obviously some equipment will need to be shared among the smaller, less populated counties.  This should be kept in the district barns and used on loan per diem for each county if needed, but larger counties should provide these services in-house.

However, traffic control and safety improvements have proven to be a weak point for many counties across the state as they have relied entirely on state-aid or federal-aid for any significant repairs to inadequate or aging traffic control devices while they have nobody in-house with the training necessarily to properly inspect traffic control duties.  When guardrails go decades without repair and signs do not get properly engineered, it demonstrates that a larger agency needs to be overseeing this work.  This leads to the next point:

GDOT Supervision of Local Traffic Control and Safety Improvements

While most roadway functions would be consolidated to the county level, one exception is needed.  This involves the retainer of a portion of state-aid payments enough to pay for an expanded GDOT traffic operations unit or regional traffic operations division.  It should also be enough for the state to pool resources sufficiently to at least partially furnish traffic control devices and safety improvements to the counties above what is available in off-system safety grants.  Many devices are too costly not to be purchased in bulk, and this is needed to improve availability and purchasing power that the local governments lack.  This means that out of whatever per-mile payments are decided that 10-20% should be withheld and distributed directly to traffic operations to work on behalf of the counties.  If the roadway falls within a city and the payment otherwise goes to the city, this withholding should also come from the city as well so that the state can provide that same service to each city.

Let us drill it down here.  Let's say that the state payment is approximately $8,800 per mile or $192 million (this is how much the state spent per mile per the GDOT fact book).  This constitutes 19% of the state's budget.  Of this, the state retains 25% or $2,200 so the final payment is $6,600 per mile.  This gives the state a budget of $39.6 million dedicated just for traffic control and safety improvements to be used on both state and major local roads (the state currently spends $26,000,000 on state routes).  If operations costs of 30% are deducted to finance traffic operations, each county would receive on average $174,339 a year to use on both state and locally-owned collectors and arterials.  It is an increase in budget, but it is offset by the consolidation of road maintenance between the state and counties.  This means that, on average, each county receives $88,050 per year for signs, signals, pavement markings, and guardrails when most rural counties are only able to budget for much less.  In addition, the joint purchasing will make those dollars stretch much further, and with payments based on road mileage it will mean that rural counties will be able to budget for roadways they were previously unable to afford while urban counties can supplement existing budgets.

Let us look at Fannin County in this example:

  • Fannin County has 64.96 miles of state routes (2012 statistics)
  • Thus, Fannin County would receive a payment of $428,736 to maintain state routes
  • The traffic control retainer is $142,912
  • 30% overhead costs take out $42,874
  • This leaves $100,038 for traffic control and safety improvements with $37,824 for state routes and $62,214 for county-maintained collectors and arterials, all which could be jointly purchased.
Let us next look at Cherokee County:

  • Cherokee County has 133.27 miles of state routes (2012 statistics)
  • Thus, Cherokee County would receive a payment of $1,172,776 to maintain state routes
  • The traffic control retainer is $293,194
  • 30% overhead costs take out $87,958
  • This leaves $205,236 for traffic control and safety improvements with $87,513 for state routes and $117,723 for county-maintained collectors and arterials, all of which could be jointly purchased
  • The county also maintains its own sign shop, which could afford upgrades under this approach

The expansion of traffic control would be two-fold: oversight would be for all county-maintained roads, but state funding would not be sufficient to cover all roads.  The traffic operations office would simply oversee and direct the placement and design of traffic control devices based on whatever funds are available, but they would not be permitted to set any traffic laws or ordinances since they are not the legal owners of county-maintained roads.  This means that they cannot determine the appropriate speed limit, post truck restrictions, or post any traffic laws unless specifically permitted to do so.  Likewise, if a local agency creates or alters a traffic law, this must be posted by the traffic control division.

What the state would provide in terms of funding would be equivalent to a farm-to-market system.  In order for a roadway to receive state payments or funding, the roadway must be a designated arterial or collector and not be part of the state highway system.  This means that the state would fund this work on only about 30% of the state's roads leaving local governments the primary responsibility to fund traffic control devices and safety improvements on all remaining local roads.  GDOT or a regional traffic operations unit would simply oversee all work that was done to make sure that it complies with applicable federal standards, and counties would have more flexibility on materials as long as they complied with federal standards.  

It is not an accident that state-aid payments should focus on these farm-to-market level roads.  If GDOT's resources are spread too thin on inconsequential roads, it is less likely that the county roads that are equivalent in functional classification to state routes will receive adequate signage, pavement markings, and maintenance.  A significant need for better guide signs is an example of such as well as a need to focus pavement markings on the most widely traveled roads.  If the state can focus resources on these roads, they will be overall better maintained than they would be if treated as just "local" roads.  In addition, this limited role will help address the issue of counties like Fulton where city governments maintain every non-state road at present.  If Fulton were to be restored to the road maintenance business, it would make sense to have those state payments help cover county maintenance on the more widely traveled city streets.  


A need for significantly better signage, especially guide, is needed on both state and local roads.  This has simply not been addressed through the current system where this responsibility is duplicated between the state and county and too centralized on a state level.  This guide sign was added into this scene along Old U.S. 278/Atlanta Hwy in Polk County near Rockmart where it junctions with Vinson Mountain Road.  GDOT still recognizes this portion of Old U.S. 278 as a minor arterial, but it not maintained to anything near state highway standards.  Vinson Mountain Road is a major collector road that was once considered for a state route upgrade.

Of special note is that some instances exist where a collector/arterial falls on an unpaved road, substandard road, or closed road.  In those cases, the county should be permitted to swap mileage on a case-by-case basis with an equivalent local road that is deemed important enough by GDOT.  These roads are indicated in grey or white on the state's functional classification map such as Newport Road in Fannin County or Old U.S. 441 in Rabun County through Lakemont.  Both counties have unpaved or substandard collector roads that could be swapped.  

Since counties would be in charge of maintaining state routes, they will need the equipment to do this.  While the state might provide funding and oversight for traffic control, it will be up to the counties to do the work for them.  This means that counties will need to work under state supervision for state roads, accept work orders from the state when state funding is provided for local roads, and all traffic control proposals for local roads, especially those using state funding, will need to be approved by the traffic operations office before signage is installed.  Counties (and any participating cities) will need to purchase only from state-approved vendors, and in-house work will be subject to inspection from traffic operations: especially if it is state-funded.  In fact, it would be best for this process to be decentralized as a means of reducing the dependence on prison labor for sign production and to assure improved uniformity.  This will be the condition that counties will have to follow in order to be eligible for state-aid payments so that they have greater responsibilities.  While counties are not technically required to follow these standards due to home rule laws, a failure to meet these duties will necessarily result in the state cutting payments to the counties or suspending state-aid road projects until required corrections are made and/or conditions met.  Since the counties will have the resources and funding to do this work correctly, they will no longer have an excuse.

Decentralization of GDOT Traffic Operations

If GDOT is to take on a lot more roads for traffic control purposes, the last thing that is needed is for this duty to be operated out of Atlanta and not distributed to areas closer to the roads themselves.  For that reason, traffic operations should be fully decentralized one of three ways:

  1. To Each GDOT District
    • This places traffic control duties within Districts 1-7 with a separate office in each district operating independent of each other.
    • Doing this allows a more creative and independent approach to traffic control that suits the needs of each region.
  2. To Special GDOT Districts
    • This places traffic operations duties into 12 districts based on the boundaries of the present-day regional planning districts similar to how GDOT has separate construction districts that do not line up with the current GDOT districts.
  3. To Independent Regional Districts (Preferred)
    • This gets GDOT out of the traffic control business and instead assigns this duty to 12 completely independent districts based on regional planning districts funded by state-aid funds
    • These traffic operations districts would be headed by a PTOE and staff that would oversee traffic control duties on state and local roads only within that assigned region, and they would be required to follow state standards along state highways while developing their own standards on local roads they supervise.
This map was used on the post about regional roads, but it is a good rule of thumb on how GDOT's own districts should be carved up even if just for the purpose of traffic control.  What Catoosa County needs may be far different from what Glynn County needs, but on a very local level it is not working well while the state responsibility is spread very thin over such a large state with over 10 million residents.

It is important to note on the former option that GDOT actually does need to create more districts.  The current seven districts are too few to accommodate the state's population and have not changed in many years.  At least two new districts are needed: one that is formed out of District 1 and 6 and the other out of District 2 and 3.  Preferably the entire district operation needs to be reformed so that the new districts line up perfectly with the state's regional planning districts.  This will better allow GDOT to coordinate with local governments on matter such as transportation planning and maintenance.  

WHY THIS IS BETTER

The solution here is laid out in four simple steps: the state contracts with the counties for road maintenance, pays the counties per-mile to do state-aid work, retains a portion of funding to pool resources and provide oversight of local traffic control, and then the state decentralizes traffic operations in order to provide a more locally-intensive approach without destroying the benefits of consolidation.

By playing on each other's strengths and allowing the maintenance gap between state and county routes to be significantly narrowed, perhaps then the state can focus more on realigning the state route system to better line up with function and need.  A large reason that so many politically-motivated useless state routes remain when far more important roads remain local is that there is an unspoken consensus the counties won't do as good of a job, but in this way this differences would become negligible.  If functional routes could be signed and maintained as well as a state route, it would improve navigation and allow local governments to be less concerned about the potential consequences of a mileage transfer.  They will primarily be in charge of maintenance anyway, and the state will be overseeing traffic control either way, so what is now both a funding and maintenance issue simply turns into a funding issue.  

This is a win-win for both sides: GDOT saves money and relies less on contractors to maintain state roads while the local governments receive a huge boost in funding just to maintain a few more roads while gaining access to proper engineering oversight on thousands of miles of local roads, many previously not supervised by any engineer.  Taxes do not have to be raised, and more is able to be done with less without making any changes to state or local government.  The question is, will GDOT or the state legislature be open to such an idea?  Past experience says no, but perhaps cooler heads will prevail when the solution in many ways preserves status quo while having both state and local agencies play to each other's strengths.