Motorists driving through Virginia can be forgiven if, for reasons they can't quite figure out, the old Five Man Electrical Band song line "sign, sign, everywhere a sign" pops into their heads.
The Virginia Department of Transportation knows why and has revamped its highway sign program to cut down on the roadside clutter, improve tourism and bring in a little extra money.
Under the new plan, there will be a whole lot less brown on the state's roads and a bit more blue. No longer will attractions such as Busch Gardens be given big brown billboards on major highways to direct people to their sites. Instead, they will get smaller play under a new "attractions" category that will be added to the familiar blue gas, food and lodging logo signs.
The cost to get a listing on the signs will rise from $750 a year to $900 at low-use exits and $1,250 at high-use ones. For those prices, businesses will get two signs, one on highways and one on exit ramps that tell drivers how far they have to go. The price doubles for listings on both sides of the highway.
Existing brown signs will not be taken down, but new ones will be limited to specific cultural, governmental, education, recreational or historical sites, VDOT officials said.
The state has also launched a sign program for rural roads, under which golf courses, ski resorts and other tourist attractions can buy a spot on a rectangular blue sign that indicates direction and distance. One of those costs $450 a year.
State officials are hoping that the range of new options will eventually enable them to phase out the small, blue generic signs of a gas tank, a knife and fork or a telephone receiver on them.
With all the changes, Virginia officials expect to take in an additional $900,000 a year and will use the money to tidy up state-run welcome centers and rest areas.
Maryland has a less extensive and less expensive program. Companies are required to pay to make the signs, at a cost of $800 to $1,300, and then pay an annual fee of $358 for one direction or $716 for two directions.
Drivers frustrated by signs that don't give distances may be interested to know that in Maryland, the restaurants and motels must be within three miles of interchanges and that gas stations must be within one mile.
The changes in Virginia drew praise from many. "Anything that presents information to tourists and visitors in a concise way is good," said Leighton Powell, executive director of Scenic Virginia, a private organization dedicated to preserving the commonwealth's scenery. "Concise and close to the road doesn't generally mar a landscape, and these are signs for local businesses, which we support."
But Michael J. O'Connor, chief executive of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, said the changes will hurt local businesses, because the fee increases make it easier for a national chain such as Cracker Barrel to advertise than a local mom-and-pop diner.
O'Connor also said the changes will force convenience store owners to pay to help their competition, since the additional revenue will go toward improving welcome centers and rest areas. Travelers will "drop quarters in vending machines at rest stops instead of spending money in places like ours," he said.
Billboard operators also registered their displeasure.
"It sounds like they're getting into the outdoor advertising industry," said Joe Kunigonis, a spokesman for billboard owner Clear Channel Outdoor. "It's very highly restrictive for private companies to put up signs, and if they're instituting this type of program for the state, it seems to me a conflict."
Federal guidelines limit the number of logo signs to four per exit and the number of logos to six per sign, said Ray Khoury, a state traffic engineer who heads the sign program. At exits with a glut of services, some businesses are likely to get left out.
"We have a very limited number of signs, and demand is high," Khoury said. So the state is taking advertisers on a first-come, first-served basis for a year, with the understanding that the rules may change. "They know, based on these criteria we've developed, they might be bumped eventually," he said.
Under the old rules, new businesses that were closer to interchanges could bump old ones off signs. Now, businesses within a mile of the exit cannot bump each other. Farther out, a new business that is a half-mile closer to the exit can bump an old one.
Officials acknowledge that the new system is imperfect, but they said the new signs are pointing them in the right direction.
"What we're trying to do is provide the capability for businesses to be recognized on the signs, as well as to provide services to motorists," Khoury said.