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Feds withhold estimated $14M from state over ‘I Love NY’ signs

One of the New York State tourism signs,

One of the New York State tourism signs, seen here on the Meadowbrook Parkway in Freeport. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Federal officials say they are withholding an estimated $14 million from New York after the state failed to submit an adequate plan for removing “I Love NY” signs that were posted illegally on Long Island and elsewhere.

A letter detailing the agency’s decision from Brandye Hendrickson, acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, was emailed Thursday to Paul A. Karas, acting commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, and Matthew J. Driscoll, acting executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority.

The withheld money would be returned by the federal government — which has deemed the signs unsafe — if the state “comes into compliance” before Sept. 30, the letter said.

If the state does not submit an acceptable plan by the September deadline, then additional sanctions could be imposed, according to a federal source.

“Because of the installation of more than 500 noncompliant signs and repeated notification to remove these installations the FWHA [Federal Highway Administration] will assess initial penalties for noncompliance effective immediately,” the letter says.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the state DOT said, “We believe the signs are safe and provide useful information to drivers, and will continue to work with FHWA on a mutually beneficial resolution to this matter.”

In an email Friday morning the Federal Highway Administration said the agency “intends to continue to work with NYSDOT to resolve this issue.”

The blue and white signs have been erected throughout the state since they started being put up in June 2016 at a total cost of $8.1 million, including 144 on Long Island roadways such as the Long Island Expressway, the Northern State and Meadowbrook parkways as well as at Jones Beach, Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, and on local streets in Port Jefferson, Montauk and Orient.

The DOT put up the signs — which typically appear with a large marker first, followed by four smaller markers — as part of the “I Love NY” tourism campaign. The problem was they were erected after the state asked the Federal Highway Administration in May 2013 for permission to post the signs and it was denied that June.

Federal officials said the signs violate federal and state laws and are unsafe because they do not adhere to the requirement that all highway markers regulate, warn or guide traffic, and they contain too much information — therefore distracting drivers.

In November 2016 the Federal Highway Administration threatened to cut an unspecified portion of the approximately $1 billion the state receives from the federal government annually for highway and bridge projects.

Following the threat in December 2016, state DOT and Federal Highway Administration officials began holding a series of meetings to come up with a DOT plan for removal of the signs that was to be submitted by last April, but it was not. The submission deadline was extended to Wednesday, and the state met the deadline this week.

“While we acknowledge your progress made with some of the necessary information, the request did not include all the information needed,” the letter said. “Thus we are unable to approve the plan as is.”

A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration declined to release the state’s plan.

Some residents in communities with the signs have called them “ugly,” “too big” and “useless,” and had a small number of them removed.

The signs also raised eyebrows as talks between the state and federal officials were underway when in February of last year the DOT revealed during a joint legislative budget hearing in Albany that the signs cost $8.1 million when the agency had previously said they cost $1.76 million.

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