AUGUSTA, Maine — With overwhelming support, the Maine House Thursday voted to support a bill that revamps the state’s laws for signs along its interstate highways.
On an initial vote of 120-23, LD 1831 passed despite concerns from some lawmakers who said the bill would lead to the removal of signs that help their communities’ tourist trade.
The bill, which seeks to align the state with federal law and protect an estimated $170 million in federal highway funds, only applies to the Maine Turnpike, I-95 and I-295. It would move or remove about 90 signs, but it also includes provisions that would allow some entities, including several nonprofit attractions, that are losing signs to be able to replace it with a “logo” sign that would have an annual fee.
Also losing interstate signs completely is a group of private high schools, including Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield and Hebron Academy in Hebron.
Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, voted against the measure after her attempt to amend the bill to grandfather into law all the existing interstate signs was killed.
Espling said her main concern was that Shaker Village along Route 26 in New Gloucester would lose its Maine Turnpike sign under the proposal.
She noted the village was unique in the world, a National Historic Landmark and on the National Historic Register. She said the village and its 17 historic buildings was the only active Shaker community on the planet. She said the village, a nonprofit, depends heavily on its summer tourism season, but even so, it could not afford the annual $1600 fee to have a log sign installed on the turnpike, under the bill.
“Shaker Village is a tourist destination, and with tourism being such a big part of our economy in Maine, this original bill would make Maine less tourist-friendly,” Espling said.
She argued that signs all across Maine would be impacted.
“These signs are not meaningless,” Espling said, “and other legislators will tell you how much their signs mean to them in their districts.”
She said while the bill was meant to remove interstate signs from the political arena and place them in a more regulatory one, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which wrote the bill, had already “tweaked” it to allow some signs to stay that would have otherwise been removed.
Local officials have also voiced concerns about the loss of interstate signs.
Espling said the bill may have been meant to set up standards so there would not be winners and losers when it came to signs.
“But the bill picks losers,” she added.
Others speaking against the bill and for the amendment said the bill, as is, was essentially the state accepting a federal mandate and one that seemed unlikely to be enforced.
Rep. Joe Brooks, I-Winterport, said the measure would mean Fort Knox State Park’s interstate signs would also be relocated or removed reducing tourist traffic to the fort. Brooks estimated traffic to the fort would decrease by as much as 25 percent under the proposed sign changes.
“I think we need to continue with what we are doing,” Brooks said. “Leave the signs alone. If you want to be more secure about signs on the interstate, be more secure about the rules about putting up new ones, but the current ones serve us well.”
But lawmakers voting in favor of the bill said the state could not risk the highway funds and said the bill would set a guiding policy that would limit the number of requests coming almost every law-making session for new signs.
“The bottom line on this bill is we brought this in order to take the putting up of signs out of the political realm,” said Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook. Peoples, a ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, said who got sign and who didn’t was a matter of politics.
“Unfortunately, over the course of a number of years, who gets a sign has become a matter of who you know and who you can convince to get it done,” Peoples said. She also said that the regime for signs was nearly in conflict with the state’s ban on commercial billboards. Maine is one of only four states to prohibit billboards on its highways.
“If we allow this amendment, we may as well not pass the bill because we will find ourselves in the next Legislature back in the same boat,” Peoples said.
But Brooks argued that wasn’t the case. He also said most nonprofits didn’t have “a readily available $1,500 to rebuy the sign that they already had and have had for years and passed the current regulations.”
The bill faces additional votes in the Senate and the House.