Drivers emerging for a post-pandemic summer vacation will encounter highway exit signs renumbered — at significant expense — to meet Washington’s expectations.
Massachusetts is spending $2.8 million to conform to what it describes as a “Federal Highway Administration requirement” of a milepost-based numbering system. It replaces a sequential system that has been in place for decades.
Exit 18, where eastbound travelers used to veer off the Massachusetts Turnpike for Cambridge, Massachusetts, is now Exit 131. Exit 26, for Logan Airport, has been changed to exit 137.
Rhode Island began renumbering its highway exits in 2017 and spent an estimated $340,000 changing the exit numbers on a single road, the Providence Journal reports. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation website explains that the new exit numbering scheme is “required by the federal Highway Administration.”
New York spent $6.3 million on a project to replace exit signs on 70.5 miles of Interstate 84. “The Port Jervis exit will still be Exit 1, but the New York State Thruway and Union Avenue exit, 36 miles to the east in Newburgh, will become Exits 36A-36B instead of Exits 7A-7B,” the Times-Herald Record reports.
The bureaucrats implementing the changes claim that advantages of the new numbers include “more accurate emergency response” and “national uniformity.” Some of the expenses are underwritten by the federal government, which under the Constitution has the power both to establish “post roads” and to regulate commerce among the states.
The transition costs, however, include more than the fees for painting and erecting the new signs. Businesses have to update their websites and in some cases replace billboards or printed brochures, sweatshirts or t-shirts that had the old exit numbers.
The highway departments and contractors have tried to work with the global positioning system and route-finding apps like Google Maps or Waze, but in my experience, there has been a lag between the deployment of the new signs and the mobile apps updating their navigation cues to reflect the new numbers. In New York the other day, I was nearly cut off by a driver swerving across two lanes of traffic to get to an exit that had been newly renumbered by the state but not yet by Google.
“National uniformity” may be an obsession of traffic engineers. There conceivably could be areas — such as, say, enforcement of the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution as amended — where such uniformity is desirable. Regional variations and local idiosyncrasies, though, are also part of American charm. So is respect for tradition.
That includes the tradition of complaining about overreach from Washington, and challenging federal mandates by slow-walking compliance. Connecticut Republicans issued a press release suggesting that the exits on I-95 in that state won’t be renumbered until at least 2029.
By then, the metric system may have penetrated to the point where the federal government begins pushing to replace all the newly installed mileage-based exit signs with even newer ones based on kilometers. The entire episode, with its insistence on centrally imposed uniformity rather than organically evolved tradition, is vaguely reminiscent of the French Revolution’s calendar. Happy Thermidor.
It also largely transcends partisan bounds — Washington wants to exert control and power regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control the White House.
One of the few places that hasn’t yet capitulated is the live-free-or-die state. “They’ve been trying to get us to do this for years, with this threat,” Governor Chris Sununu tells the Boston Globe. “Good luck with that. ... We’re going to fight it the whole way.”
What will President Biden do? Wage a court battle? Send the troops Biden withdrew from Afghanistan to defeat the Granite State governor and enforce the placement of mile-number-based exit signs? A redeployment from Kandahar to the Kancamagus Highway?
Highways have pushed the limits of federal power in America, beginning at least with the National Road authorized in 1806 under President Jefferson and continuing through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act that President Eisenhower signed into law in 1956.
If, more than 200 years after Jefferson, the exit numbers don’t all meet the federal standards for “national uniformity,” chalk it up not only to the balance between state and federal power but as a sign of the American character. It is as American as the open road.
Image: Photograph by Kimon Berlin of the view from the glorious Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire, which is resisting the federal road sign mandates. The mandates haven't impacted the Kangcamagus — yet.