TUCSON – A project that will use federal stimulus money to replace aging signs along Interstate 19 with ones marked with miles instead of kilometers has drawn so much criticism that it has been temporarily shelved by Gov. Jan Brewer.
Businessmen in Green Valley and elsewhere along the 63-mile Tucson-to-Nogales corridor have two gripes.
They think the $1.5 million cost to swap out 400 road signs could be better spent on repaving roads and filling potholes.
And they say switching from kilometers to miles will cause merchants needless marketing and promotional expenses during troubling economic times by having to change print and Internet directions that currently tell people, for example, to take Continental Road, exit Kilometer 63.
They also say correcting mapping and global positioning system services to change the exit numbers will be difficult and time-consuming.
But their concerns were heard, and Brewer recently ordered her staff to review the situation.
“We heard significant input from the community that they wanted to keep the signs as they are with the metric,” said Tim Bee, who heads Brewer’s southern Arizona office in Tucson.
A question that also should be reviewed is whether changing highway signs is a valid economic stimulus project, he said.
“I think it’ll create some jobs, yes, but we’ve got streets here in the Green Valley area that are in bad need of repair,” said Stan Riddle, president of the Green Valley Community Coordinating Council, a key organization in the unincorporated retirement community about 25 miles south of Tucson.
“We’ve got potholes where you get a car in there and you end up having to get a wheel alignment,” Riddle said.
He acknowledged that the signs eventually will need to be replaced but said a lot of signs along Arizona’s highways are in the same condition. “I didn’t understand their reasoning for singling out I-19.”
Linda Ritter, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Transportation, said the project would take about 30 private-sector workers a year. She said ADOT had considered replacement a priority because of safety and hazard issues.
“People are not opposed for any political reason,” said Ray Carroll, a Pima County supervisor whose district includes Green Valley. “They think the money could be better spent on other shovel-ready improvements for Green Valley.
“But the overwhelming opinion is that we’ve lived under the metric signage without any incident. Why now, when there are so many other pressing uses for money, do we have to be forced to accept this project? They just want to appeal it.”
The signs date to around 1980 and put up when the United States was weighing a conversion to the metric system. ADOT had plans to replace them to comply with new sign requirements to meet minimum reflectivity standards for night driving, when the signs are illuminated only by vehicles’ headlights, Ritter said.
When federal economic stimulus funds became available, the I-19 signs were among 41 projects that the state Transportation Board approved, she said.
Ritter added that some drivers complained when the signs first went up of being confused by use of metric designations.
But Jim Green, who operates the Inn at San Ignacio, said that while the kilometer signs on the highway have been a conversation point, he’s never heard a complaint about them in 12 years of talking to thousands of hotel guests.
“If anything, it makes us unique … for us to change that, it’s just a waste of money in my opinion.”
Ritter said the governor asked her staff and ADOT to study the impact and options further, and the department has suggested posting new signs with both kilometers and miles for a few years – something that Green, for one, questions.
Bee said a state statute prohibits metric designations on new highway signs but is not specific about replacement signs. He also said it would make more sense to keep new signs up until they too need replacement years down the road.