When Heather Kittrell sits on the porch in front of her Scranton, Pennsylvania, home, she sometimes watches as many as five drivers speed through the intersection of Pine Street and Wheeler Avenue.
None notices the stop sign.
A white smudge streaks through the middle of the sign that directs southbound traffic at the three-way stop. The sign has lost nearly all of its luster and the letters are almost illegible.
“I have an 11-year-old, and he’s not allowed to go past that tree there because of the cars flying down Wheeler,” she said, nodding toward a tree halfway between her house and the corner.
Dilapidated stop signs are an issue all over the city, Councilman Bob McGoff said. Some are “so faded they are almost gray or white.”
Like other northeast Pennsylvania cities facing annual budget crunches, Scranton struggles to keep up with replacing its deteriorating stop signs — one of the many small, but important tasks that can fall through the cracks when money and manpower stretches thin.
When the city hired traffic control repairman Gene Reed 23 years ago, his department had five people. Now Reed runs a one-man show.
“When we had a full department, we had someone making signs all the time,” Mr. Reed said. “He didn’t have to worry about things like traffic lights acting up, painting lines on the road and hanging banners. … It’s hard to get everything done.”
Reed saves the city money by making signs himself from blank aluminum templates or by salvaging existing signs. The several-step process includes coating signs with reflective sheets and using a machine to press materials onto the metal. It can take as long as two hours per stop sign, and he tries to keep about a dozen on hand if possible.
Distractions are common.
“When a traffic light malfunctions or a stop sign is knocked down, he has to drop whatever he is doing and go take care of it immediately,” Public Works Director Dennis Gallagher said. “It’s a public safety issue.”
Like fixing potholes along the city’s 263 miles of road, maintaining stop signs is a big job, and the city has been behind for years, Gallagher said.
The city generally replaces the stop signs as people report problematic ones to the department.
Other urban areas in Northeast Pennsylvania, such as Dunmore and Hazleton, face similar challenges and also gradually replace old traffic signs.
Dunmore Borough Manager Vito Ruggiero is working with state and federal officials to use an old grant to replace 937 stop signs, 28 do-not-enter signs and 28 one-way signs, which the state Department of Transportation estimated would cost $82,956, with all new hardware.
Frank Vito, Hazleton’s public works supervisor, estimated his department replaces 40 to 50 stop signs per year along the city’s approximately 120 miles of roads. But the efforts only go so far, and like Scranton, the city replaces them largely as people report problems.
Rising pension and health care costs only leave so much to go around for other work, Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi said.
Despite the challenge, state and federal transportation officials said properly reflective signs are important to protecting the traveling public. About half of traffic fatalities happen at night, although only about a quarter of travel occurs after dark, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
PennDOT developed a strategy to start replacing its signs every 18 years with up-to-date, reflective signs that are just as visible at night as during the day, said PennDOT senior civil engineer Kenneth C. Reuther.
“If you can’t see a sign at night, it’s a big liability,” Reuther said.
For the moment, Scranton officials are concentrating on this summer’s $2.2 million paving project. But they are starting to think about ways to help Reed out — not just with stop signs, but all traffic signs, said Business Administrator David Bulzoni.
Ideally, the city could line up grant money. Otherwise, Scranton may earmark some of its growing liquid fuels allocation from the state’s new $2.3 billion transportation package to hire an engineering firm to inventory signs, then start replacing them more quickly.
Without additional resources, McGoff did not see much alternative to the public works department’s current strategy.
“It is near the top of the priority list and is being pursued by the DPW,” McGoff said. “But (should) we not collect garbage one week so we can have everyone out fixing signs?”
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