WHEELING - Road signs are something most drivers take for granted, but replacing them is something states, counties and local communities need to address on an almost daily basis.
City of Wheeling Supervisor of Operations and Traffic Engineer Tim Birch said replacing damaged, stolen or just worn-out street and road signs is an ongoing process. He said more than 300 signs, of all kinds, are replaced in the city every year. New federal regulations require regulatory road signs, such as stop signs, be "high intensity reflective" by 2014.
The city of Wheeling has been making its own signs for about 14 years. They are not made, as they were in the past, with paint and stencils, but by a computer that automatically cuts the letters. According to Birch, the computer cuts the lettering for the required sign on a piece of adhesive-backed vinyl, which is then put on a metal blank. There are different kinds of vinyl for different signs.
Photo by Art Limann
Sign Shop Foreman Roger Shunk, left, and Tom Caldwell work on street signs in the Wheeling sign shop in Clator.
The city replaced its first automated cutting computer five years ago.
It is not only used by the sign department but also by other city departments and communities, for making things such as decals for police and fire vehicles.
The vinyl for the new high-intensity signs costs about 30 percent more than older engineering-grade vinyl, however, the life span is expected to be about 10 years, where for the older type it was six years.
The older vinyl is now being used for regulatory signs such as "no parking" and "bus stop" where the high intensity is not yet required.
Birch said the city is now in the process of upgrading all the city signs to meet the new regulations.
"We have been doing that for about three years now. We are gradually getting into it so by the time we get around to the deadline, we should have the majority of them done," he said. "It's funny, just before they came out with this new rule we just ordered 300 of the older engineering-grade stop signs.
The city has about 1,200 stop signs in it, so it is actually cheaper for us to order them in rather than make them ourselves. We are now using them in lesser-traveled areas, such as alleys, before the new ones will have to be put in."
"Basically most of our signs are in great shape," Birch continued, "but they tend to start to fade out in about eight years and we try to replace them in 10. They crank out every bit of 300-plus signs a year."
As far as theft of signs, Birch admits there are some taken each year, but he added, "It's not a huge deal."
He assumes they are taken by college students for use as decorations in their dorm rooms because at the beginning of each semester there is an up-tick in sign thefts.
He pointed out that, a few years ago when the band "Rush" was popular, the Rush Avenue road sign was being stolen every time it was replaced, until steps were taken to make removing it more difficult.
"We could not keep those signs up," he said. "Every time we put one up it would be stolen. We finally got some vandal-proof hardware and put it up about 3 feet, and we haven't had any problems since. Apparently there were a lot of Rush fans out there."
"It's interesting, whenever the end of the school year comes along we might get a call from Wheeling Jesuit or West Liberty and they ask if we could come over and pick up these signs because they have them from cleaning out the dorm rooms. So we go out and may pick up five or six signs. Some of them actually come from other towns or villages or places like Pittsburgh, so we kind of come out ahead of the game, " he laughed.
"We also have a lot of signs that get run over, and it's pretty obvious what happened because the sign pole is sheared off. We obviously don't blame the college students for that," he said.
The city budgets about $24,000 each year for sign replacement. A small sign costs about $20 while a larger sign may cost as much as $50.
Deputy Police Chief Martin Kimble said he was not aware of any increase or decrease, in sign thefts recently. He said there have been no more, or less, than usual. He said it is difficult to make arrests in sign thefts because an officer does not usually witness the theft in progress.
"We would have to be at the right place at the right time," he said. "We have, however, confiscated some signs we have found at different times."
He added if the police department is provided with information regarding sign theft, it would act on it.