After several months of back-and-forth, State Highway Administration officials on Monday reached a tentative consensus with Sen. Jim Rosapepe and a handful of business owners regarding future signage along a northbound I-95 exit to Laurel.
In November, local business owners learned that service-specific signs informing motorists of dining, lodging and restaurant options at exits 33A and 33B, toward Route 198, would be removed along northbound I-95 as part of the final phases of Intercounty Connector construction.
Currently, logoed signs for restaurants such as Seibel's, McDonald's, IHOP and Pollo Campero, as well for specific gas stations and hotels, let motorists know exactly what they can expect to find if they decide to stop in Laurel or Burtonsville.
But highway exits for Route 198, Contee Road and the ICC wll soon be combined into one exit, taking commuters along a side service road with exits for each route.
Though southbound service signs will remain in place after the road's reconfiguration, there will no longer be enough space for service signs at that exit on northbound I-95. Federal guidelines mandate that signs be placed at least 800 feet apart, according to SHA officials.
Local business owners have argued that specific service signs are integral in attracting customers. They worry that removing the signs will lead motorists to skip them over and pull off at an exit with specific signs instead.
Last fall, Rosapepe asked SHA engineers to revisit plans along I-95 and the side service roads to see if they could come up with any new solutions to the specific-signage problem.
On Monday, SHA officials proposed installing a generic service sign along the side service road, 800 feet before the new exit for eastbound Route 198. The sign would have images indicating to travelers that there are dining, gas and lodging options ahead, although it would not specify any brands.
Rosapepe and the business owners at the meeting, which included representatives from Seibel's, the Holiday Inn and area Shell gas stations, agreed that a generic sign before the Route 198 exit would help.
Rosapepe also offered to pursue an exception from the federal highway administration allowing SHA to place a specific service sign on northbound I-95 before the exit for MD-212. According to ICC project director Mark Coblentz, federal regulations normally require signage for an exit to be placed between that exit and the one immediately before it.
Coblentz said seeing a service sign for exit 33 before motorists have reached exit 29 could be confusing. "Typically, as a motorist and a traveler myself, when I see a sign I think it's for the next exit," he said.
But Rosapepe said the federal government might be convinced by an appeal that the "somewhat unusual problem" created by the new side service road configuration "should have a somewhat unusual solution."
While two of the three business owners in attendance said they would prefer generic signs over specific ones -- because the proposed signs wouldn't be able to incorporate the logos of all businesses near the exit -- Rosapepe said he would take a poll of other stakeholders before deciding whether to request the exception.
Though Coblentz said federal highway officials had already verbally indicated they would not make any signage exceptions, Rosapepe said that wouldn't deter him from asking.
"No is the default position," of many agencies, he said. "That doesn't worry me at all. People don't like to make exceptions."