If you are familiar with Michigan, you are familiar with construction season. The four months of the year in which the air is not frigid but is instead filled with the incessant buzzing of hammers and the landscape becomes flecked with bulbous orange cones. Driving through one such construction zone on U.S. 10, however, I noticed a marked difference. The pounding that usually fills my ears was quiet, and the giant cones seemed rather unobtrusive. They were not filling the potholes of the road, but replacing highway signs.
While I have had the problem of rattled teeth due to the occasional gaping abyss down our highways, I have never experienced difficulty with these signs. They are visible, bright, reflective signs that always tell me that I’m close to home. And yet, here is the Michigan Department of Transportation, removing them. What’s worse, they were being replaced with the exact same sign.
So I called up MDOT. The Office of Communications at MDOT was polite, concise and well organized. I was told by a calm, soothing voice that the signs did not meet the reflectivity and breakaway guidelines set by the federal government, and that the federal government therefore was requiring them to be replaced.
I asked the soothing voice if she thought this was really that important. She told me that federal funds were paying $1.6 million of the $1.8 million required to replace signs everywhere in Michigan, not just U.S. 10. I then asked the soothing voice if she thought there were more important things the money could go toward. She told me that the funds were non-transferable, and that the state of Michigan could only use them for these signs. I asked the voice, one last time, if she thought MDOT could have found a better use for $1.8 million.
Finally, in between explanations of non-transferable funds, she answered my question with, “Well, that’s not for me to say.” Which is really the flaw in most big government schemes. These types of decisions should be localized, because the locals know what the locals need. I don’t think I have ever heard of a sign being a problem in Michigan, in reflectivity or breakaway. I have, however, felt the unsettling sensation of my poor Ford sinking into a feebly patched highway. But the federal government decided that the best way to improve my driving experience in Michigan was $1.8 million worth of new, shiny signage.