Vermont Under Siege
Signage Creep Smothering the Green Mountain State
I drive around just like many people do along Vermont's highways and byways. The beauty of the State is stunning. Also like others, I drive into other states around New England, and sometimes beyond. Mostly, they all look the same. Billboards, road signs, shopping centers, big box stores, fast food joints, more billboards, some electronic billboards that flash messages at you...you know, the typical American roadways that tend to lack charm and natural beauty. Until recently, Vermont has been different.
Do the new flashing signs/billboards really add to Vermont's "greenness?" Here, a highway "billboard" mounted on fixed metal posts near Wilder, VT on Interstate 91.
Now, driving around The Green Mountain State, we're faced with a new breed of highway signage media. These seemingly innocuous reminders of road construction or maintenance started out about as innocently and pure as the winter's driven snow. Yet, of late, they've increased in numbers exponentially and have gotten muddied with words that flash messages at us from long distances—the road sign equivalent of ALL CAPS in an email, or like shouting instead of talking to to a friend. I clench the wheel these days, wondering what's ahead, until finally these new highway denizens come into focus so I can read messages the likes of:
- "Construction Ahead ~ Slow Down" or "286 Highway Deaths ~ This Year in VT" or (as pictured above) "VTRANS CLEANING UP VT ~ PLEASE SLOW DOWN" or even one that really had me wondering that announced, "Winter is Coming ~ Get Snow Tires" some time back in October.
Ok, I get it. The highway departments of the world want to alert motorists to potential hazards on the roads. It's a safety thing, right? But why must we have flashing signs to notify us when non-illuminated bright orange and black signs have long served the same purpose nicely? I wonder about cost, of course, too. Putting a solar-powered highway billboard on top of an orange trailer and towing it around from place to place must get pricey. Perhaps that's why we now see these new roadway signs perched in blackout mode on median dividers waiting to be activated. Instead of purchasing signs, states now purchases trailers with large lighting arrays and solar panels that can be programmed and illuminated according to the need of the moment. But warning us to buy snow tires because winter is coming? Really? Not only does this kind of message insult our northern New England sense of intelligence, it also begs the question of, "When did the State begin to advertise for tire manufacturers on its new highway billboards?" I've also noticed on the backs of some of these illuminated signs the name of the construction company that's actually performing the roadwork being completed (or so it seems to me since I've never gotten out and asked.) That doesn't just feel like advertising, it actually is advertising for a business.
What's wrong with the orange and black signs that have alerted us to highway conditions ahead without distracting drivers with flashing lights night and day?
Which brings me to the Vermont Billboard Statute, as it is affectionately known. Enacted in 1968, this comes in the form of the 1968 State Billboard Act (10 V.S.A. Chapter 21). The law, according to the VT Natural Resources Council, took a "strong step in creating road corridors free of visual clutter." The Billboard Statute specifically prohibits any signs that are "illuminated by any flashing intermittent or moving lights."
So, you ask, what's the catch? Why all the new flashing solar-powered road signs proliferating along Vermont's roads and highways like the first ferns of Spring poking up their fiddleheads before uncurling all over our back yards? Or mushrooms popping up in our forested landscape after a summer's rain? Why are so many orange trailers sitting around like soon-to-be-rusting monoliths of some unknown age, idly littering our beautiful Green Mountain pastoral views as we motor along? The tires are pulled off to prevent, presumably, theft, making them look something akin to vandalized vehicles. Why must we be accosted by flashing lights, even during the daylight hours when a mere orange sign with black lettering perched upon a tripod will more than suffice—as they have for decades throughout Vermont, summer, winter, spring, and fall? And what happens when the clouds come, or night falls? Are the batteries sufficient to keep the illuminated highway sign billboards lit, or do they switch over to some other power source? Might these be part-time, carbon-emitting signs as well? I can't say, but the thought has occurred to me.
Here's a sign that was hacked in Colchester, VT according to boston.com. What's next, exploding signs?
Now, to add more fuel to the fire, I've encountered these flashing billboard spectacles of highway information bolted to metal posts, sunk into the ground in what I suspect must be cement. So, the State is now creating permanent roadway billboards to punctuate our otherwise lovely views. Is there a limit to what the State highway department of transportation can do? Who monitors the monitors of Vermont's roads? Has anyone ever imagined what it might be like to have trailered billboards littering the roadways while new illuminated signage gets bolted to permanent posts as well? Vermont may be slipping down the slope of every other state, thus making it look like every other state. The uniqueness of Vermont's scenic beauty is at stake. Are Vermonters ready to let their state become just like "any other state USA" by erecting flashing lights along its roads without restriction?
The Billboard Statute specifically exempts any "traffic control sign, barber poles, theatre marquees which are determined by the travel information council to contribute to the historic significance of a building listed, or eligible for listing, in the national register of historic places and which are operated in accordance with any conditions prescribed by the travel information council, or signs of a public service nature as determined by the travel information council." Yet its intent was to provide for roadways free of visual clutter. So, who's watching the people now placing all kinds of new visual clutter along Vermont's roads and highways? I've even seen these illuminated, flashing signs out in the hinterlands by some small bridge project where motorists can easily see to the other side of the bridge. A bit overdone, I'd say.
Just how far down this path of illuminated highway signage in VT will we drive? (Image posted online by: http://imgur.com/gallery/kod2yDP )
Perhaps new legislative oversight is in order to prevent the modern kind of billboard creep the original Billboard Statute drafters never foresaw coming to the Green Mountain State. The hills of VT are now alive with flashing billboards. These may be totally innocuous and harmless highway signs in the eyes of some, but might they not be a new style of billboard media masquerading as motorist safety messages? Do we really want Vermont to lose its natural esthetic uniqueness? Would Vermonters prefer to have the state remain special, uncluttered, and visually litter-free/billboard-free for all who live and visit here? I wonder what the State's tourism office might have to say about the ubiquity and proliferation of these new highway billboards and its attendant billboard creep that makes Vermont's roadways look more like a rural version of Times Square? And, further, how might the impact of billboard creep punctuating the scenic beauty of Vermont diminish tourism in the State?
Just some questions I consider as I drive and cycle around, awestruck by the natural beauty of Vermont, while getting blinded trying to peer beyond the latest in flashing highway sign technology.
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