A WAITING THE SIGNATURE of Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary is a bill allocating $200,000 to meet a federal mandate that doesn't yet exist.
Here's how it got this far: Not long ago traffic engineers at the county Department of Public Works found $691,000 in federal grant money sitting around.
They applied for it, specifically asking to use the money to replace road signs in accordance with impending new standards; a mandate for larger letters on signs and greater reflectivity has been published in the Federal Register, though not signed into law. Public Works officials figured this was a chance to use some money the county didn't expect to have to get ahead of the game.
They asked the County Council to approve the first installment of the grant for the sign upgrade, explaining the money is needed to meet a federal mandate, and council members agreed -- until they discovered that at this point no mandate exists. Now they're upset that they've earmarked $200,000 for sign replacement when the county's scratching for money to deal with immediate problems, such as road repair.
Signs that would be easier to see, especially at night, are a good idea, but the council is right.
It's silly to spend so much money on sign upgrades when the federal government has not finalized the standards, decided if they will be optional or required, or said whether they must be enacted at once or phased in over time -- especially when the county needs funds for routine maintenance.
Mr. Gary can solve this problem easily enough either by sending the bill back to the council or signing it and asking the state, through which the grant was funnelled, for permission to use the money for other traffic and road needs.
As far as the signs are concerned, there's no reason why the county couldn't start upgrading them gradually, using the larger letters and better reflective material on all new signs and replacements for old ones. If the federal government does approve a mandate requiring new signs by a certain date, the county obviously will have to deal with that.
For now, there are higher priorities.