Replacing traffic signs at the right time is an important science.
Waiting too long can endanger lives and expose an agency to a lawsuit. But replacing traffic signs prematurely could cost a single city tens of thousands of dollars per year.
If fully implemented, new recommendations developed by MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board (LRRB) could save public agencies as much as $41 million over three years by helping them better manage their signs and meet new federal requirements on retroreflectivity without replacing signs prematurely. Here’s how:
At a purchase price of $150 to $250 a piece, plus $20 per year for maintenance, the cost of an unnecessary traffic sign adds up. (Maintenance costs involve replacing signs that have been vandalized, knocked down, or that no longer meet required levels of retroreflectivity.)
In a case study of townships in Stevens County, Minnesota, researcher Howard Preston found that nearly a third of traffic signs were not required and served no useful purpose. The average township has 180 signs, which results in an annual maintenance cost of $3,600. The average county has 10,000 signs — an annual maintenance cost of $200,000.
Public agencies could save a collective $26 million* just by removing unnecessary or redundant signs from the field, Preston said. A traffic sign maintenance handbook developed by the LRRB and MnDOT guides agencies through that process.
Traffic signs have more life in them than the typical 12-year manufacturer’s warranty, Preston said. But how often agencies replace them varies throughout the state.
Whereas small municipalities may replace signs on an individual basis through spot-checking for retroflectivity, MnDOT has a schedule. Each of the agency’s 400,000 signs is replaced within 18 years of installation.
Preston found that MnDOT could safely extend the service life of its signs to 20 years, which would save an estimated $1.3 million within the first few years of implementation.
Assuming (in lieu of a research-backed benchmark) that local municipalities would likely start replacing signs around the 15-year mark to ensure compliance with the federal law, Preston estimates that townships, cities and counties could avoid a collective $6 million in unnecessary costs per year just by adhering to the minimum 20-year replacement schedule recommended by the study.
Agencies are required by federal law to have a method in place for ensuring that signs maintain adequate retroreflectivity. A replacement schedule based on science is one way; regular physical inspection is another.
Researchers, who consulted other state’s studies and also examined signs in the field, determined that the life of the modern sign in Minnesota is at least 20 years.
It’s possible that traffic signs actually retain their retroreflectivity for 30 years or more, but further study is needed since sheeting materials on today’s traffic signs haven’t been deployed long enough to know, researchers say.
A test deck at the MnROAD facility will track the condition of Minnesota signs over the next decades — and perhaps push the recommended replacement cycle longer.
*This figure and the $41 million total above account for cost savings calculated over an initial, three-year period. Ongoing cost savings thereafter may be different, according to Preston.
Sign Maintenance Management Handbook (PDF, 13 MB, 119 pages)