The Debate Over Highway Signs in NH

What does it say about NH?

illustration by peter noonan

When approaching an interstate exit, three green highway signs, by law, must appear. One sign at least a mile away from the exit tells you what is coming up. Another sign appears at the half-mile mark. Then, at the exit, a third sign points to the off ramp.

But beyond these signs are more signs. And in New Hampshire lately there has been a behind-the-scenes tussle over exactly how many signs to have, what color they should be and where they should be located.

This battle may sound a bit removed from everyday life, but the truth is that no other debate this year, including any inside the Statehouse, is more interesting. The battle over highway signs is about competing state values and special interests. The debate isn’t about how to point travelers to the Bee Fields Farm in Wilton, but something much larger: the question of what matters most to New Hampshire in 2014.

There is the New Hampshire of low taxes and a small government constantly being asked to do more with less money. There is the New Hampshire where tourism is the second largest industry. Then there is the New Hampshire that both Republicans and Democrats share a value for environmentalism, conservation and minimalism.

Highway signs are a great example of that last point. Most states (including Maine and Massachusetts) have highway signs alerting travelers to what restaurants and hotels are available at the upcoming interstate exit — New Hampshire is not one of them. The state’s attitude is let’s not litter the highway with these signs or distract drivers.

"The battle is about competing state values and special interests."

There are always exceptions. The Holderness School really needed a sign. So did the Capitol Center for the Arts and Santa’s Village. Over the years, more than 80 businesses and cultural centers lobbied and got a sign. The person at the center of all this is Bill Lambert, who heads up the traffic division at the state’s Department of Transportation. All was well until Lambert’s budget to maintain these signs shrunk.

In 2012 Lambert found a clever solution to do more with less. The federal government expanded the number of acceptable signs for the highway and off ramps. Now the feds allow states to have an additional sign for something just called “Attractions.”

Lambert began removing signs for local commercial spots and moving these to the new “Attractions” board. Not only would it save the state money in lower maintenance costs — it would actually raise revenue. To have your business logo placed on ramps coming from both directions would cost $1,000.

He admits he didn’t give groups enough notice about the changes. This led to two situations. The first is someone in the tourist industry saw one of their signs being removed without a heads-up and complained. The second is that, in Merrimack, the only item listed as an “Attraction” was the “State Liquor Store.” A picture of that sign appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and quickly went viral.

In 2007 there was significant discussion about whether the New Hampshire welcome signs at the borders should say “Live Free or Die.” Now all signs point to yet another intense debate.

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