WORCESTER (AP) >> Unlike other states, Massachusetts may well have been planning to roll out a major project to change exit numbers on highways without first informing the public, according to public records obtained by the Telegram & Gazette.
The "exit-sign conversion" project is a mandate by the Federal Highway Administration that exit signs on interstates and other major roadways be based on mileage or distance rather than the sequential or consecutive numbering system.
"We're not familiar with the project they (MassDOT) are doing," said Mary-Ellen Blunt, spokeswoman with the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission, which helps prioritize road and bridge projects in the area. She said she learned about the project from a Telegram & Gazette article in December that outlined what Connecticut has done and that Massachusetts was supposed to have begun a similar project in January.
"I guess it would be helpful if we knew. I would hope that they would have some sort of public outreach. Usually, they do use us as part of their outreach. Maybe this is an area where they felt they could do it themselves." Ms. Blunt said she experienced how motorist-friendly the mile-based system is when she visited South Dakota a few years ago.
FHWA implemented the change in 2009, because most states were already using the mileage-based system. The rationale is that motorists would be best served by a nationwide uniform system. It helps motorists determine their travel mileage and destination distances as well as help facilitate quick and accurate emergency responses.
States were required to adopt the new guideline and submit a plan to FHWA by 2012 on how the compliance will be met. But, there is no deadline for making the change. Only a handful of states, all in the Northeast, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York and Connecticut, still use the old system.
Connecticut recently implemented the change on I-395 when it had to replace thousands of old signs along the 53-mile corridor that had outlived their useful life span. Maine made the conversion in 2001. Both states undertook massive efforts to inform the public, businesses, chambers of commerce, regional planning agencies and other stakeholders long before the project began. Maine highway representatives also worked closely with the tourism association and went to fairs and festivals to get the word out.
Massachusetts on the other hand, has seemingly been somewhat secretive about if and when it will implement an exit-sign conversion project that will affect more than two dozen roadways including the Mass Pike and interstate highways 190, 290, 495, and 395 in Central Massachusetts.
Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he too has not heard about the project. He said he plans to reach out to MassDOT's local District 3 office to see how the chamber can help get the information out to businesses.
MassDOT representatives declined to provide information about the project to the Telegram & Gazette for its December 2015 story. Some information was obtained this month after the newspaper filed a public records request. MassDOT awarded the contract for the first part of the project to Halifax-based Liddell Bros. Inc. The project entails renumbering the exits with overlays rather than new signage. Indication of the current exit number would be left for a period to allow to allow the public to acclimate to the change.
In a copy of a Sept. 10, 2015, email obtained through the public records request, Stephen Timmins, the state's highway signing engineer and project manager, after being questioned by FHWA officials about how the public would be informed, said: "We will shortly be having a meeting with our PR people to start work on implementing the PR effort for this project, which will be running concurrently with the implementation of the renumbering."
The project was scheduled to begin in January. A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration last week said the project will begin in "the spring 2016 construction season." However, MassDOT, in an email Thursday, said "currently there is no timeline concerning when and where the project would begin."
After MassDOT failed to respond to questions about the project in December, the Telegram & Gazette sent letters to MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack and Gov. Charlie Baker outlining the problems in getting information. On Jan. 12, a former media relations person at the agency set up a telephone interview between a reporter and state Highway Administrator Thomas J. Tinlin. Mr. Tinlin said he had not yet signed off on the project even though the contract had been awarded two months earlier.
"I'm just doing some due diligence," he said. "I want to take a look at what we're doing with our money and why we're doing projects. I'm not interested in standing in the way of the federal requirement, but we do need to understand the impact this will have on our customers. Forty-five other states felt it makes sense for them. But my job is to see that it makes sense for our customer needs."
Mr. Tinlin said the project has some benefits. He noted that under the mile-based system, the sequence of the exit numbering does not have to be changed if new interchanges are added to a route. "But I don't want to say this is great when there's going to be a lot of change out there. We can't' be foolish enough to think it's not going to impact anybody in an adverse way."
Mr. Tinlin's predecessor, Frank DePaola, in a letter to FHWA in April 2014, requested and received approval to use federal Highway Safety Improvement Planning money to pay for most of the project. In his letter he outlined what he said were several advantages to using the mileage-based numbering system.
Transportation and planning officials on Cape Cod did not learn about MassDOT's plans to renumber Route 6 until a couple of weeks ago.
It came to their attention after MassDOT moved a locally-prioritized project to replace aging traffic signs that had lost reflectivity on a section of Route 6 to the state's Transportation Improvement Program list which included the exit-sign replacement project.
Patty Daley, deputy director of the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency, said a MassDOT representative who attended the Cape's MPO meeting Feb. 22, agreed to put the matter on a future agenda for further discussion.
"We allowed the plan to get ahead of the process," Mr. Tinlin was quoted in a Feb. 23 Cape Cod Times article. "Someone hit the 'send' button when they shouldn't have."
That "someone" might have been Mr. Timmins, the state highway signage engineer, who is manager of the exit-sign conversion project.
Robert H. "Bob" Malme of Hingham, an archival consultant who has an interest in road projects, found out about the proposal long before the contract was awarded. Mr. Malme said he got the information off a website called AA Roads Forum. Information about the state's proposed exit-sign conversion project was posted to the site by "Road Man," whose real name is Stephen Timmins, said Mr. Malme. He said he had also occassionally spoken to Mr. Timmins until last fall, when he stopped volunteering specific information about the project.
"He tipped me off on these projects going on ... I was able to find the original contract documents on MassDOT sites for the projects," Mr. Malme said. He subsequently posted all the information on his blogsite: SureWhyNotNow?
Mr. Malme said he believes MassDOT officials "have a fear of getting this news out, possibly because of a fear of public backlash.
"It's almost like paranoia," said Mr. Malme. "Like people aren't going to like what we're doing so do it secretly. Spring it on them and they have to deal with it."
One of the documents MassDOT sent to the Telegram & Gazette as a result of the public records request was a copy of an email Neil Boudreau, director of traffic and safety at MassDOT, sent to others, including two people at FHWA on Jan. 15.
"We have been recently getting some feedback on this issue as a result of the (T&G article) ... regarding Connecticut DOT's (project) and our lack of prompt response to the reporter. Let's just say the winds of change are blowing and we are scrutinizing things to try and make sure that what we do makes sense and does not open us up to more public criticism than we need to get on this activity. ... The bottom line is that we want to ensure that the motoring public understands the new format. ... It could be just that we are entrenched in our old way of doing things."
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com