Winter takes toll on state’s highway signs

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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To the mounting toll from this snowy winter, add another casualty: the state highway sign.

The final tally will remain unknown until spring, after snowbanks melt and reveal just how many mile markers and speed limit signs were knocked down by plow drivers, felled by the weight of ice and snow, or otherwise damaged by winter.

But the replacement costs could easily run taxpayers $150,000 or more, on top of the $600,000 the state spends most years to replace signs lost to weather and accidents, said Luisa Paiewonsky, the state’s top highway official.

“It’s definitely an issue this winter,’’ Paiewonsky said. “I don’t recall seeing so many signs knocked down at one time.’’

The number of signs cleaved in half or just plain missing is so striking that it caught Paie wonsky’s attention when she surveyed the major highways around Boston after the last storm to evaluate pavement conditions.

“They were so expected a part of the landscape that their absence was immediately noticeable to me,’’ she said. “I turned to my co-worker and said, ‘What happened to all the signs?’ ’’

Although the massive overhead signs command the most attention, the foot soldiers in the state’s army of 120,000 highway markers are the smaller roadside posts along numbered routes and highways, including more than 7,700 new and improved mile markers that went up in 2009 and were intended to last up to 15 years. Those mile markers cost more than $200 apiece.

The destruction of some of those mile markers this winter is particularly painful to Massachusetts officials and taxpayers, because those signs were manufactured and installed with federal highway safety funds but must be replaced at state expense.

Roughly 2,500 signs are destroyed in an average winter, some of them inadvertently struck by plow contractors hired to clear the state’s highways. Others fall from the weight of ice and snow that accumulates on them. And overhead signs can be clipped by tractor-trailers that normally pass safely beneath but in winter carry tall layers of ice and snow, Paiewonsky said.

The unusual amount of snow this winter may not be entirely to blame for the sign destruction. Before the start of the winter, the state instructed its 2,000 private snow and ice contractors to purchase side-wing plows, secondary plows that extend off the side of a truck to clear highway lanes more efficiently.

Joe Parent of Attleboro said he was heading to New Hampshire last Thursday when he saw a driver with a wing plow whack the new mile markers one after another on a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 95 approaching the border. The destruction may have been inadvertent, but Parent was stunned. He said almost every marker — five per mile — was destroyed on the northbound side; on his return trip he found half or more missing on the southbound side.

“The federal government just spent millions of dollars to put these things up, and they’re not just nicked, they’re plowed right over,’’ said Parent. “It was just so blatant that it just made me boil.’’

Parent said he e-mailed the governor’s office and received a general reply. Paiewonsky encouraged people who see signs being knocked over to call the Department of Transportation’s Highway Division at 617-973-7800.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at