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Signs of the Times: Follow the Money and Not the Cuomo versus Federal Government Showdown

Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau , Gannett

On November 2, Jon Campbell , the Albany correspondent for Gannet, reported in the Poughkeepsie Journal under the byline Politics on the Hudson on an exciting new tourist development in our dysfunctional state.  According to his report, Cuomo had the Department of Transportation (DOT) install “514 highway signs touting its tourism programs despite a federal ruling explicitly prohibiting the state from doing so.”

The investigation, through parent company USA Today, documented that the “Federal Highway Administration has repeatedly notified Cuomo’s administration over the past three years that the signs violate federal and state law, which contain strict rules for what can and cannot be displayed on major roadways.”

New York had submitted a formal request to the Federal Highway Administration on May 31, 2013, asking to experiment with the new type of highway signs to boost the state’s tourism programs. The response was remarkably quick, brief, and succinct. Mark Kehrli, director of the federal Office of Transportation Operations, issued an official ruling to the state two weeks later: “Your request is hereby denied.”

Despite the Fed rejection, in his State of the State address in 2014, the Governor said:

We are going to launch a whole new signage campaign on our roads, promoting the assets of New York, organized into three campaigns. The path through history campaign, the I love New York attraction campaign and the taste of New York Food and Beverages. You will see these signs on the roads literally in the next few days. These campaigns link online to all those attractions in that particular area, all along the thruway and all along major routes. The goal is to get people who are on the roads off the roads and into communities and fostering and promoting the economy of the state of New York.

And that is exactly what New York did.  The signs are generally in packs of 5, separated by 400 feet: a “motherboard” touts the “New York Experience” followed by four signs touting individual state tourism programs like Taste NY and Path through History. The Federal Highway Administration repeatedly said “No” and New York determinedly said “Yes” and installed them. Done deal.

According to the article, in a statement that week, state DOT spokesman Gary Holmes contended the signs fully comply with the law. He also reported that the cost of the signs and posts — not including the labor to install them — was $1.76 million between the DOT and the Thruway Authority.

“We view them as a critical element in a coordinated strategic program to promote the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry. We continue to work with FHWA to ensure any questions are answered.”

Cuomo himself then joined the fray. He pointed out the state has an app that allows visitors to track what attractions are near them.

Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau, Gannett
Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau, Gannett

“We’re trying to capture those people who travel through New York and say, ‘See something while you’re here. Spend some of your money while you’re in upstate New York,’” he told reporters in Rochester.

Campbell’s article reports a successful effort in Suffolk to reduce the number of these signs. They were too big and out-of-place for the local flavor the Montauk community was trying to promote for its tourism.

The saga continues.

On November 8, Campbell, the same reporter, quoted Acting Executive Director Bill Finch of the Thruway Authority asserting that the signs follow “the spirit of the law.” Finch contrasted the “letter of the law” with the “spirit of the law” and challenged the Federal Highway Administration to update its standards.

The Federal Highway Administration is questioning whether a series of new highway rest stops in New York -- including this one on Long Island -- comply with federal law. (Photo: (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)
(Photo: (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

On November 14, Campbell reported that the Federal Highway Administration had questioned 10 newly-opened or proposed rest areas as not being in compliance with the virtually total ban on commercial activity on rest stops on the Interstate Highways. As if that would matter to New York State…. Do you really think the Federal Government will withhold any of the $1.7 billion federal funding for New York’s transportation infrastructure. Calling the Federal Highway Administration’s bluff is a no-brainer.

On November 30, the New York Times entered the battle. It reported a meeting would be held in December to attempt to resolve the dispute which had been festering for years. It also noted an issue had been raised over the increased driving fatalities due to distracted drivers. Trying to read the information on the motherboard sign touting multiple state attractions at 65+ mph certainly would qualify as a distraction.

The article went on quote a State Legislator from Suffolk on the situation there previously mentioned.

“They were really so out of character with the small communities and two-lane highways that they actually worked against the reason why people come to the East End to begin with,” said Fred W. Thiele Jr., a New York assemblyman who represents the area and who fought to have the signs removed. “We’ve spent literally a billion dollars protecting small villages and scenic vistas and all of that, and putting up eight giant billboards wasn’t really promoting those very scenic features.”

So not long after the signs were erected, cherry pickers showed up and took down seven of them. Mr. Thiele, a member of the Independence Party, hopes the remaining blue sign, at the intersection of West Lake Drive and Flamingo Avenue, is next.

“Quite frankly, we kind of felt that not only were they inappropriate,” he said, “but it was really kind of a boondoggle.”

The next day, the New York Post editorial board expressed it’s concern. It did so in response to an article the previous day by one of its reporters. That article ridiculed the hiring an Arkansas company to promote New York products as Campbell had reported on November 18.

“I find it ironic that a company from Arkansas was paid to work on a project helping to promote New York State products,” said Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica). “It’s simply a bad sign when New York picks Arkansas for a project promoting our state.”

The Post provided a reason for this outreach to Arkansas:

The state hired an Arkansas company to make hundreds of highway signs promoting New York because Gov. Cuomo wanted them up by the July 4th holiday and the Department of Transportation couldn’t meet his deadline, sources told The Post.


Members of Cuomo’s executive staff were so hot to get the signs ready for holiday travelers, they told state transportation employees to do “whatever it took to erect the signs,” sources said.

DOT denies the charge.

Federal Highway Administration spokesman Neil Gaffney said,

“We have been clear with NYSDOT that its tourism-related signs are out of compliance with federal law and create a safety concern. A particular area of concern for us is that fact that we are committed to reducing scenarios involving distracted driving, and these signs can distract drivers. We will specifically discuss how these signs violate national standards and a plan to bring the State into compliance [at the upcoming meeting],”

The Post editorial following this article mocked these developments.

Call it a Gov. Cuomo classic: Order 500 signs to plug New York on state highways — never mind if they’re made outside New York. Or if posting them is even legal.

[Instead of “ironic” as Assemblyman Brindisi said, the Post had] We’d call it bizarre — and telling.
Let’s face it: With Cuomo, it’s damn the details, full speed ahead.…
Sure, sometimes speed counts. But in Cuomo’s case, his haste is mostly meant to promote him. And, alas, there’s no, uh, sign that’ll change any time soon.

On December 2, in this ongoing story, Campbell reported based again on FOIL documents that Federal Highway Administration had offered New York State a deal two years to resolve the issue. The proposal was ignored. Apparently the State’s position is “My way or the highway!” The headlines present an interesting insight into newspaper reporting. The printed edition in my local paper says “State turned down deal on NY signs.” When I looked online to obtain the url for the post the headline was


State rebuffed feds’ olive branch on ‘I Love NY’ signs

The original headline appears to better capture the position of the State then the nondescript printed edition.What do these signs mean of New York State history tourism?

1. Notice the July 4 deadline for the sign installation, the traditional beginning of the summer tourism season. Nobody rushed to install the signs before the Path through History weekend in June which is supposed to promote tourism as Cuomo has said in multiple State of the State addresses and at the Path kickoff in 2012. That’s because everyone knows the Path through History has nothing to do with tourism and is a joke and embarrassment.

2. Notice the reference to the app with New York State tourism that out-of-state tourists can use while driving through New York. Exactly how many people driving on the interstate thruways in New York at 65+ mph are going to make a sudden, impromptu, ad hoc decision to interrupt their journeys to stop and visit an historic site, especially one not right at the exit? Aren’t people supposed to use the Path through History website to plan their itinerary before they leave for New York? Do state spokespeople even think about what they are saying before they say it or are they so secure inside the Albany-Manhattan bubble that they can say millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election and get away with it?

3. Where did the money come from? Cuomo just decided he wanted to spend $1.8 million plus labor and the DOT found the money! He certainly didn’t go through the REDC funding process.

When the Triangle Fire Coalition needed $1.5 million to build a memorial, Cuomo found the money in 2015. I think we can all agree that it was for a worthy cause. When Cuomo described the reasons for his action, he did mention tourism. But he spoke more about the civic benefits, the educational benefits, and reviving faded memories that are part of the social fabric. Isn’t that the very case the history community makes for the benefits of local and state history in the classroom and in the communities throughout the state? Why isn’t Cuomo making this case for local and state history statewide instead of piecemeal? Why can’t he understand that?

And where did he get the money? From economic development funds…and without having to go through the REDC funding application process.

And when the Marydell Sisters in Upper Nyack, in Rockland County, chose to sell 30 acres to a trust rather than let developers purchase it, who stepped in to aid in the financial arrangements? The NYSOPRHP for $2.1 million and the Mid-Hudson REDC for $450,000.

At the Region 7 meeting of the Association of Public Historians in New York State held November 5 in Schoharie, a participant asked State Historian Devin Lander about funding for historical societies and museums. Once upon a time there had been member items but they have been eliminated by the State. Now where does a small non-profit turn? The requested amounts are often in the $10,000 or less range [less than one of the new road signs although we didn’t know it at the time].  The amounts are too small to be considered in the REDC process so the result is these local non-profit history organization located throughout the state are bereft of state support.

The title of this post says “follow the money.” The brouhaha between the Federal and State governments eventually will be resolved. What is more important for the history community is to recognize that funding is available when the Governor and/or the REDCs want it be. There is no funding for the history community as a separate bucket with the REDC funding application process that could replace the member items or provide for anniversary celebrations or build memorials. Instead we get foreign signs that provide no more benefit to the history community than the failed Path through History project. The Triangle Fire Memorial shows that Cuomo does understand the civic benefit of history but he has yet to realize it on a statewide basis and put our tax money where his mouth is.

7 thoughts on “Signs of the Times: Follow the Money and Not the Cuomo versus Federal Government Showdown

  1. Peter,

    I have mixed feelings. Nice to publicize, but, like “sanctuary cities”, you need to recognize where your financing is coming from. I totally can see why people in Montauk are feeling that the oversized signs “were opposite to the reasons why people came to visit us into first place.”

    Look at the tight zoning in beautiful places like Cape Cod and even Rhinebeck, New York. They are not “picturesque” places to visit “by accident” ! Locally, here, the pretty town of Fishkill had OTB put up an out of zoning sized sign on Rt 9 to announce their presence. The Town tried to get it taken down, but lost because NYS law took precedence over local code. BAD decision. I don’t need a big sign to tell me where to find a gambling parlor, any more than I need a sign to tell me where to buy drugs, for that matter. If I want it, I’ll find it !

    As for these “NYS Experience” signs: if you’re passing thru, do your homework and find out what there is to see along the way BEFORE you leave home. Few people leave time in their plans for unexpected local touring of sites they never knew about. I recall LadyBird Johnson helping to get billboards off the Interstate highways. Now, on the NYS Thruway, they are 500 yards(?) back in front of the tree line. Legal, but STILL UGLY !! Burma Shave signs were history, but not pretty. Maybe we need these NYS signs up on the entrance road to the Mohonk property, too ?? Why just look at the pretty trees and foliage there ?

    Now, if the Fed decides to withhold funding in proportion to the locations where these signs are placed, THAT will cost NYS a bunch unexpected additional financing to make up for.

  2. Once again, you have hit the nail on the head. The ineffective Pathway Through History project and the money spent on these signs – And the comment about funds not being available to small museums and historical societies just illustrates that the governor has his own agenda, which doesn’t benefit those who need it most.

  3. Never mind any possible tourism benefit. At a time when distractions from focusing on the highway are at an all time high with people texting and following social media while driving at 70 miles an hour, the governor proposes, nay forces through, infomercials that are unnecessary to the task at hand, which is to arrive safely at ones destination. This is insane. The federal regulations are there for a reason, never more necessary than now.

  4. In October, after passing eight signs advertising Taste New York and the market at Lock 13, we pulled into the rest stop (as did 6 or 8 other cars while we were there) only to find out that it was closed. After tourist season, it is open only Thursday through Sunday, 7:30 am-5:00 pm. That information was posted on a piece of paper that was taped to the front door.

    1. Good Grief! I hope you are not suggesting that signs be even bigger and more distracting to include the hours open! Think of all the cars which will then have to pullover and come to a complete stop to read all the information! One hopes at least it is a big piece of paper with a very strong adhesive. ☺

      Thanks for writing,

      Peter

  5. Hi Peter – On my drive to Flushing on the GC Parkway I noted a new sign for NYS Path Through History just past LGA airport. The sign did not have any information on location, attractions, or directions. Once you leave GCT, there are no signs in Flushing mentioning nearby historic sites, although we have several.
    Do you have the contact information for the state people in charge, who make the decisions there? I would like to follow up.

    Expecting someone to check a cellphone for details while driving is ridiculous. But without even “exit 12 for history path” is useless. There are signs on Rt. 95 in CT for popular tourist attractions like the Mystic Aquarium and the Seaport; they have been there for years. They give the exit number. Then smaller signs are on local roads.
    The subway exit does list local sites, but not Bowne House. We want to get that updated – that’s why I asked for the contact.

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