Towns work to keep street name signs replaced and up-to-date

Street signs at the intersection of North Manheim and Henry W. Dubois in  New Paltz. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Street signs at the intersection of North Manheim and Henry W. Dubois in New Paltz. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Every once in awhile, a street name sign gets put up that isn’t quite right. It might be that there’s an abbreviation on it that could confuse out-of-town (or even local) drivers, or a bona fide spelling error managed to creep in. There are even a few cases in the area where not all instances of a particular street’s name are spelled the same way. New Paltz Highway Superintendent Chris Marx explained the challenges his department faces while keeping street name signs replaced and up-to-date, some of which his colleagues in neighboring towns also must wrestle with.

In a sense, unfunded mandates from the state can be a blessing, because a call to replace all signs to conform with new standards is an opportunity to correct any errors or inconsistencies. That’s what must happen for all local roads by 2018, Marx said, when new requirements kick in that improve reflectivity and, hopefully, standardize the size and style of writing. Whether or not street names should be written in all capital letters, or just title case, is a requirement that Marx recalls has gone back and forth since he first started out as a highway employee. The deadline for the new signs has been pushed back at least once already. That can also be costly, though: Phil Johnson ordered an entire new set of signs, but was unable to put them up before he was replaced by Mike Nielson, who gave up putting them up because the standards had changed again. Those signs were never used, Marx said.

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Some strange signs, such as “H W Dubois Rd,” started cropping up thanks to a shortcut taken by state bureaucrats. Municipalities are allocated state funding under the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS) based on miles of road maintained, and thus there is a master list of each town’s roads which is used to ensure that the appropriate monies are distributed. Since it’s also a list of every single road, when the state requires an all-out replacement, it’s convenient to hand that list over to the manufacturer directly. In the past, Marx has only focused on making sure the mileage of the roads were correct, and didn’t pay much attention to the names. Then, however, “They started abbreviating the names,” he said, and some signs were made to the wrong specifications. They’ve only been used when an existing sign is knocked down and have since been replaced.

Marx noted that portions of Henry W Dubois Drive in the village are marked as a “Rd,” while other signs proclaim it to be a “Dr.” Village Superintendent of Public Works Bleu Terwilliger was on vacation and unable to comment.

With that sign list being suspect, the highway department’s next source of correct spellings is the road file, where information on every single road is kept in several file drawers. If there is reason to believe that the file also doesn’t have it right, he asks the town clerk to research the original road dedication documents, which is the definitive source on how the street’s name is to be spelled. “That’s not to say they didn’t make a mistake in those documents,” he warned, but the buck has to stop somewhere.

One example of a contentious sign is for Paradise Lane. That’s how it’s spelled on the signs, but online maps and people with that family name disagree. The original road dedication wasn’t in the file, so they instead turned to the oldest property records to determine how it should actually be spelled. It’s possible that those records contain a spelling error — some members of the Paradies family pronounce the name as one would “paradise” — but the error has been enshrined, lacking any more authoritative source from which to correct it.

Newer roads can be equally problematic. Marx discovered that some of the streets in the Cherry Hill neighborhood have had in correct designations for a long time. Apple Road, for example, is apparently supposed to be Apple Street. And is that dead-end off of Gatehouse Road supposed to be called Woodlot or Wood Lot Road? “The original was Wood-Lot-Road, so that’s what’s on the sign,” Marx explained. Likewise, Hummell Road really does have that double L.

Challenges with sign-name management are not just a New Paltz phenomenon, either. Gardiner Highway Superintendent Brian Stiscia was asked whether Burnt Meadow or Burnt Meadows was the name of the road in his town. That confusion, he said, stems from the neighboring Town of Shawangunk, where the sign incorrectly pluralized the meadow.

As his department gears up to computerize its files, Marx says he has implemented more checks and balances to make sure new errors don’t slip through. “Living here so long, you don’t notice” minor errors, he said, so he has both his secretary and his foreman double-check each entry. There’s also some blanks and decals in the shop, which can be used for a quick fix if a mistake is more egregious. That’s what was done when the sign at one end of Elliots Lane gave it only one Elliot.

Some signs see more replacement than others. The department keeps a few extra of both “College Ave” and “Bud St” handy, because they need to be replaced as often as ten times a year.

How quickly a sign is replaced can depend on engineering, too. The longer street name needs to be installed lower, because the weight of the larger sign will cause a smaller to bend. If it’s long enough — think Plutarch Road — it has to be an extruded sign, one with a fat ridge along the edge for additional strength. The sign stacking order can actually change, such as when the town started using a different manufacturer recently, one who made the letters slightly wider. Different brackets are needed to mount a street sign, depending on where it’s located in the stack.

This is of particular concern for emergency services, and Marx is mindful that it’s a job his crew must get right. Each time the fire department calls for assistance, drivers unfamiliar with those quirky signs may be depending on them to find the correct location. In larger municipalities, which contain many similarly-named streets, the problem can be even worse.

Stiscia, a past fire chief, agrees that it’s a priority to be correct. He recalled a time when a sign manufacturer dropped “schoolhouse” from Guilford Schoolhouse Road, because of the length. That won’t do for GPS mapping, nor will putting up signs that say “Stokes Road” when online maps assert that it’s a lane.

The problem is not likely to ever completely disappear, but spotting apparent problems can be an enjoyable pastime for residents. Don’t get surprised, though, if your highway superintendent tells you that the apparent error is actually how it was intended to be spelled all along. Just smile, and order new return-address labels as soon as possible.

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