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Signs of the Times: The $14 Million I Love NY Signs

Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau , Gannett

The I Love NY Interstate Highway signs are back in the news and for all the wrong reasons. I first reported on the construction of these illegal signs back on December 5, 2016 in the post

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

The subject were the signs erected by the Department of Transportation in defiance of the Federal Highway Administration. The 514 out-of-state manufactured signs were hurriedly installed requiring overtime just prior to the July 4 weekend in 2014. The Governor found the funds he needed because that’s what the Governor can do when he wants something done.

The situation did not go over well with the FHA leading to on-and-off meetings between the state and federal organizations. The threat to the state was the loss of funding from the federal government if it refused to comply with federal rules. It would seem as if the state didn’t really take seriously the threat of any loss of funds over these 514 signs.

I next reported on the situation on February 5, 2017.  The Albany Bureau of Gannett led by reporter Jon Campbell had obtained additional information regarding the costs using FOIL requests.  The funding had been done through “emergency contracts” because as everyone knows what better qualifies as an emergency than I LoveNY signs. In the post I wrote:

Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the state Associated General Contractors, [said] this usage was “’not typical.’” Elmendorf’s words bear notice. He is a critic of the signs and said the money could have been better spent.

“I think the bigger concern is using capital dollars for something that certainly has no benefit to infrastructure and, I think you could argue, has negligible benefit for tourism, because they don’t really tell you anything.”

Exactly right. Cuomo has paid millions to market the Path through History concept but no money to create actual paths through history. For a person who wants to be president of the United States in a time of great national division, it is astonishing that he would engage in alternative facts and be so dismissive of the local and state history that helped make America great in the first place.

So I wrote one year ago.

What has happened since then?

The following articles by Campbell appeared in my local paper as well as a variety of papers throughout the state that are part of the Gannett chain.  I used the titles from my paper which may vary from the title used in other papers. The dates are from the website and not the publication dates which often were the following day.

February 15, 2017: ‘I Love NY’ Signs Cost More Than State First Claimed

The total cost was $8.1 million including about $3.6 million for materials and $4.5 million for installation. This figures compares to the $1.76 million originally reported for the 514 signs.

February 28, 2017: Cuomo Defends ‘I Love NY’ Signs

March 20, 2017: Feds, State Battling over Replacing I Love NY Signs (print title)
Feds say no, but NY replacing wind-swept I Love NY signs (website title)

The article refers to Mother Nature (temporarily) removing some signs through a wind storm that Cuomo refused to remove. The article concludes with a quotation from Assemblyman Stephen Hawley (R), Batavia: “Only in New York can you use taxpayer money in plain sight to fund illegal activities and no one bats an eye.” Naturally he was taken to task for his comment by those who champion the prowess of the federal government.

June 1, 2017: Feds Press NY on ‘I Love NY’ Signs

July 19, 2017: I Love NY Signs Aired at Congressional Hearing

September 28, 2017: Up or Down? Feds, State Continue Battle over I Love NY Signs

October 6, 2017: I Love NY: ‘Almost time’ to Change Signs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo Says

The Governor’s words were more suggestive of a change because after they had been up for over three years, they had served their purpose so perhaps something new was in order. There was no suggestion that they would be removed because they were illegal. He may have been laying the groundwork for the face-saving words he would use once he was compelled to remove them.

I had been clipping these articles from the local paper the old-fashioned way with a scissors waiting for the right time to write another blog about them. I didn’t know when that might happen but sooner or later something had to give. This month the signs hit the fan.

February 1, 2018: New DOT Chief Weighs in on ‘I Love NY’ Signs

Paul Karas, head of the state DOT, said on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, that his agency was not submitting a plan to the feds in the coming weeks to resolve ongoing issues over I Love NY highway signs. The agency did four days later. This item is a video of Karas being interviewed and not an article. As it turns out the coming weeks ended up being the coming days.

February 1, 2018: State Docked $14M for Violating Law – Installing I Love NY Highway Signs

Cuomo’s prediction comes true. He was right when he said the federal government would not take down the signs. Instead it ordered the state to do so by September 30 and withheld $14 million to force compliance. So add the cost of removing them to the $8.1 million cost of installing them.

This action attracted attention.

Newsday published an editorial Finally, New York’s useless highway signs will hit the road writing

the federal government is forcing Cuomo to take down the 514 nearly useless eyesores, which cost about $15,700 apiece.

The Post tactfully proclaimed: Cuomo Finally Signals ‘surrender’ in Highway-sign Fight

The gov’s minions don’t have much choice but to do as he orders. But it seems Cuomo found that “my way or the highway” doesn’t work with the Highway Administration.

The Poughkeepsie Journal delicately phrased Cuomo’s surrender this way:

STATE BLINKS: I Love NY Signs to Come Down by Summer to Avoid $14M fine

WARNINGS IGNORED: New NY highway signs are illegal, feds say

The counterpunch anticipated by Cuomo last year was that the signs had worked but had now outlived their usefulness and would be replaced by new signs and slogans which the FHA may or may not approve.

2018 is of course an election year and the governor position is on the ballot. Senator John DeFrancisco (R), Syracuse, as expected, criticized Cuomo for his actions and defiance (video).

He has called for hearings on the subject.

Naturally Cuomo is fighting back. DOT spokesman Joe Morrissey said: “Since it began, tourism has increased 18 percent and the economic impact of tourism jumped more than 20 percent. DOT makes road signs and the Senator should know that since this program was included in the budgets he voted for. We know he’s running for Governor, but this sort of nonsensical grandstanding should be left at the door.”

That claim led to the following counter-response by DeFrancisco:

The Governor and his DOT Commissioner are delusional. They must think that New Yorkers are morons to think that they would believe that illegal signs costing $8 million increased tourism by 20%. He just can’t admit that he’s wrong. Clearly, Andrew hasn’t learned any lessons from the Percoco trial.”

Let the games begin. Imagine if they catch on that the Path through History touted on those signs has been a joke and subject of ridicule for even longer than the signs!

Interestingly the Republican charge that the Democrat chief executive from Queens acted above the law in the state capital was eerily similar to the Democratic charge that the Republican chief executive from Queens in the national capital operates the same way.

P.S. For the history signs that actually are needed see my post from November 8, 2016: History Signs: Pathway to the Past.

How about taking all the millions the governor can find when he wants and spend some of it on the history signs themselves. Let’s take an inventory of the signs we do have, the corrections and repairs which are needed, and determine the signs we should have that we don’t.

P.P.S. It is time to look at the awards granted by I Love NY for the 2017 REDC funding for the Path through History touted on the signs.

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.