Did You Know? Why is the City of Littleton changing all the street signs?

St sign 1

By now you must have noticed new street signs in downtown Littleton and on the west side of Prince south of Ridge Road.  You are probably wondering why it is out with the old and in with the new. We wondered too so we inquired.

This new effort in Littleton is called Littleton Wayfinding and will be phased in over the next three years.  Phase 1 is to be completed by late spring of 2016 and Phase II before the end of 2016.  The cost of this new signage is estimated to be over $1.2 million with $500,000 approved in 2015, $465,000 approved in 2016 and another $235,000 projected for the 2017 budget.  (Phase III has not been bid yet so those costs could vary.)

Littleton resident, Paul Bingham, did ask the Public Works Director, Mark Relph, about the new signs and was told that the replacement of street signs is an unfunded mandate by the Federal government.  So we looked into the unfunded mandate and this is what we found.

Yes, new standards were adopted on January 22, 2008 that created new standards for the retroreflectivity of signs.  In this instance retroreflectivity refers to the amount of light that is reflected back when the car headlights shine on the sign in the dark.

When the regulations were changed there was a broad outcry from municipalities across the US complaining about the expense of this mandate.  Their complaints were heard and the feds extended the compliance dates.  The 2012 date was extended to 2014, the 2015 date only includes regulatory and warning signs must be assessed by the deadline; street signs have to be assessed but no compliance deadline established.  The 2018 deadline no longer exists.  And remember, this is only for the retroflectivity requirement.  The following table shows what was first approved and the changes made after the public outcry.

Table 1. Changes to the Retroreflectivity Maintenance Rule

Original Requirements                                                 Changes

Agencies must implement a sign retroreflectivity assessment or management method by January 22, 2012 Deadline extended to two years after effective date of revised Final Rule [May 2014]


Retroreflectivity assessment or management method must be implemented for all traffic signs


Only regulatory and warning signs (e.g., stop signs) must be assessed/managed by the new deadline; other signs must also be assessed, but no deadline.


Noncompliant regulatory, warning, and post-mounted guide signs must be replaced by January 22, 2015


No deadline, though noncompliant signs must be replaced


Noncompliant street name signs and overhead guide signs must be replaced by January 22, 2018


No deadline, though noncompliant signs must be replaced

Source: Federal Highway Administration, “National Standards for Traffic Control Devices; MUTCD; Revision,” 77 Federal Register 28460, May 14, 2012.

But the retroreflectivity standards said nothing about the new lettering requirement, which led us to learn of a second and separate regulation adopted in 2009 that changed the lettering from ALL CAPS to Initial Caps.  This regulation does not have a compliance date and only applies to signs that name streets, places and highways.  In other words, the Initial Cap signs can be mounted when the current signs need replacing – perhaps because they do not meet the retroreflectivity standard.  There’s no reason for a wholesale changing of all street signs in the city of Littleton over the next three years!

Someone somewhere determined older people (i.e. baby boomers) could decipher street signs better that were written in Initial Caps than they could signs written in ALL CAPS.

Next question.  Did we have to change the colors of our street signs? The answer is No – we did not.  In fact, replacing the signs and using the same green and white colors would make the change from ALL CAPS to Initial Caps less noticeable.  But changing colors (I guess we need to use the same colors that are in the new city logo because the new logo doesn’t go with the old green and white signs) created more difficulties.  No longer can a single sign be replaced due to the end of its life cycle because the new signs are black and white and would be inconsistent with all the other signs in the area.  But the old signs were/are Initial Caps so we were already in compliance.

Who and why?  Good questions and the answer is typical of one that you would expect from Washington.  Why – baby boomers are getting old and we are not able to see the current signs well enough.  Who – would it surprise you to learn that 3M, one of the few companies that manufactures the materials for the new signs, funded a key study used by the American Traffic Safety Services Association to lobby for the new standards?  Just imagine what that would do to 3M’s bottom line if every street sign in America had to be replaced.  Maybe time to buy some 3M stock!