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Feds: State could lose highway funds if tourism signs stay up

The controversial New York State tourism signs on

The controversial New York State tourism signs on the Meadowbrook Parkway in Freeport and other roadways on Long Island and in the state are illegal, federal officials say. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Federal officials said they may cut the state’s funding for highway and bridge projects if hundreds of controversial blue “I Love NY” signs promoting local tourism are not removed from local roadways.

The signs violate federal and state laws and are unsafe because they are filled with too much information and distract drivers, Federal Highway Administration officials said. State officials contend that the signs are lawful, follow the specifications for such signage and are a valuable tool in generating tourism revenue for New York. They said they have no plans to end the program.

“There are many issues with these signs, but the primary problem is that they do not regulate, warn or guide traffic as all highway signs must,” Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said Friday. “However, the most recent installation of inappropriate signs by the State elevates our concerns that the State has failed to provide a plan of corrective action. If the State fails to comply with the law, the penalty could include withholding federal funds.”

The agency didn’t say how much federal funding is in jeopardy.

The state’s Empire State Development office, which operates the program, said the signs have “paid off. Last year, the tourism industry generated a record-breaking economic impact of $102 billion statewide.”

In May 2013, the state asked the Federal Highway Administration for permission to post the signs. The following month, on June 13, the federal Office of Transportation Operations told the state the request was denied.

In his 2014 State of the State Address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the “I Love NY” campaign.

“We are going to launch a whole new signage campaign on our roads, promoting the assets of New York, organized into three campaigns: The Path Through History campaign, the I Love New York attraction campaign and the Taste of New York Food and Beverages,” Cuomo said.

Since this past June, 514 of the signs have gone up on roadways throughout the state at a cost of $1.76 million. On Long Island, 144 have been put up along such roadways as the Long Island Expressway, the Meadowbrook and Northern State parkways, at Jones Beach and the Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, and on local streets in Montauk, Port Jefferson and Orient.

Some signs placed in communities were removed after opposition from residents and elected officials.

“I said, ‘We had no input [about whether they could be installed],’ ” said Port Jefferson Mayor Margot J. Garant, recalling a conversation she had with a Cuomo aide after three signs in the village were removed in July.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) lobbied in July to have seven of the signs removed from the hamlet’s “quaint setting.” One of them remains.

In an email Friday, Gary Holmes, director of communications for the New York State Department of Transportation, said the signs comply with federal law.

“We view them as a critical element in a coordinated strategic program to promote the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry,” Holmes said. “We continue to work with [the Federal Highway Administration] to ensure any questions are answered.”

Mark Kehrli, director of the Office of Transportation Operations, said the “I Love NY” signs are advertisements prohibited by the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways that sets national highway sign standards.

As the signs started appearing, Randy Warden, a team leader with the Federal Highway Administration, told the state DOT in an April 2014 letter that the signs violate the federal manual as well as state vehicle and traffic law. He asked that removal plans be made and requested a timetable.

“[There is] no deadline,” Hecox said Friday. “But we are waiting for the state to provide us a plan for the signs to come down, and it would include a timetable.”

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