AUGUSTA, Maine – “Don’t take our signs. Don’t move our signs,” was the message to the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday during a public hearing on a bill that proposes to remove 68 signs and move 13 others that point to towns, colleges, parks, ski areas and other recreational or cultural attractions along the state’s interstate highway system.

The legislation, LD 1831, is the result of a nearly year-long effort by the Maine Turnpike Authority and the state’s Department of Transportation to align state policy with federal law when it comes to directional and traffic signs on the interstate highway system.

Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said the effort was a direct result of a request by the committee, which was regularly hearing bills requesting signage be put up for a variety of entities.

Under the proposal, 13 signs, including ones for the Bethel Recreational Area and the University of Maine at Farmington, may be relocated to more appropriate exits.

Meanwhile, signs for commercial entities and venues, such as the Lewiston Sports Complex and Lost Valley, may be removed but would qualify for separate “logo” signs, according to the turnpike authority’s list.

The committee’s call for changes was a reaction to the number of sign requests they received that did not comply with national guidelines outlined by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and codified in the Federal Highway Administration’s uniform traffic controls manual, officials said.

Bruce Van Note, the deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said that when he’s been approached about sign installations he’s often said the only real way to get a sign is to appeal to the Legislature. Van Note said many entities over the years have done just that and been successful, which has left the state with an eclectic and inconsistent policy that’s hard to understand or defend.

But Mills said Tuesday both the MTA and MDOT recognized that Maine is unique, and that’s part of why they modified national standards including expanding one standard that said an entity had to be within 5 miles of the highway to have a sign. Maine expanded it to 100 miles. Mills said that change was meant to recognize Maine’s rural nature.

Mills also said Tuesday told lawmakers he added amendments to the bill including one being proposed that would grandfather existing signs, which should resolve most of the concerns aired during the three-hour public hearing.

The proposed rules break highway signs into two categories: interchange guide signs that alert drivers to areas of local, regional, or statewide interest, including towns and cities within 5 miles of a highway exit, or those that have a major road leading to another population center of 10,000 or more or a town or area that is considered a major destination that is “directly connected to the exit if its inclusion would benefit travelers.”

The second category, supplemental guide signs, are those that provide directional guidance to travelers and are not already identified on an interchange sign.

Those requirements could mean the removal of other signs, including those pointing to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Unity College, the Maine College of Art in Portland and Roosevelt Campobello Park near Lubec.

Susan Mitchell, the external affairs coordinator for Maine Maritime Academy, said that many of the students that go to her school visit it for the first time when they are moving in as freshman. She said even the 70 percent of the students from Maine that attend the academy do not know where it is precisely until they make that visit. She said the academy’s signs truly do serve the purpose of providing direction to visitors and students and are not simply another way to advertise the school.

Another wrinkle is that businesses, including Funtown Splashtown in Saco, say it was unfair they paid for their highway sign while ski areas like Sugarloaf and Saddleback had free signs.

Mills said the difference was between a resort that including hundreds of businesses compared to a sign that directed travellers to a specific business.

“The turnpike and I-95 are no place where we should be indulging in promotion for its own sake or for advertising,” Mills said. “It’s there for traffic, those signs are there to guide, not confuse people from away. People who need guidance about how to find the University of Maine, for example, up in Orono.”

Meanwhile lawmakers from around Maine voiced their opposition to the bill including state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, who said the signs pointing to Washington County’s major attractions including the international Roosevelt Campobello Park and Quoddy Head State Park were important to the county’s tourism economy.

“As this committee is well aware, Maine receives more than $5 billion annually from tourism,” Burns said. “From this industry, which supports nearly 90,000 jobs, we receive $370 million in tax revenues. These are all critical components to Maine and Washington County especially.” He said passing the bill now and as is, “could do serious and irreparable harm” to the state’s economy which is continues to struggle with its recovery.

Still some offered a neutral position on the bill including Vaughn Stinson, the executive director of the Maine Tourism Council. Stinson said the way people find their way while travelling on pleasure was changing rapidly with technology and state policy should make an attempt to acknowledge that.

Stinson said he was advocating to take down signs immediately but to do so in a gradually manner that reflected travelling public’s steady transition to technological means like GPS devices and online searches for travel information.

He said visitors to Maine are always stunned by the state’s natural beauty, its cleanliness and the fact the state is only one of four nationwide that prohibits billboards on its highways. He said removing more signs may have a benefit some are overlooking.

Both Mills and Van Note said following the hearing they recognize the effort to unify and streamline highway sign policy in Maine would be a difficult and perhaps uphill battle in the Legislature, where almost every lawmaker has a vested interest in promoting the businesses and attractions in their communities.

The committee will next consider amendments as they work on the bill further during a work session Wednesday, starting at 1:30 p.m.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.