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Signed sealed & delivered

Missouri sign shop draws international observers
Sunday, August 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:34 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When people want the best chocolate or watches they might go to Switzerland. But, when the Swiss want the best road signs, they come to Missouri.

“We have the best sign shop nationwide,” said Patty Bates, sign production supervisor at the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The Swiss and British have visited the department’s sign shop to learn how Missouri makes its signs.

Thirteen MoDOT employees produce 130,000 to 160,000 signs a year for Missouri’s state-maintained roads. That’s about 10,000 signs apiece.

People in the shop look tiny next to the metal messages. Stop signs are 4-foot high red octagons. A common road sign directing traffic to Detroit or Dallas is 34 feet by

18 feet, bigger than most bedrooms.

“It used to take three or four days to make a sign like that,” said Steve McDonald, state traffic engineer and Bates’ boss. “Now it takes four hours.”

That’s the difference between the flat sheet they used to use and the extruded panels they make now. Rivets and welding were required to attach flat sheets to an aluminum frame. Extruded panels have their own 6-foot square frames and fit together in modular fashion.

Stop signs are silk screened, like T-shirts. It’s an ideal technique for putting a thick layer of ink onto metal. Bates’ shop can silk screen 2,200 signs a day, if all the equipment is in top condition.

The aluminum triangles for yield signs, rectangles for information and octagons for stop signs, are mostly recycled. Eighty-five percent of the signs are refurbished at the Corrections Center in Moberly. A refurbished sign costs only a quarter of what a brand new one does.

With budget cuts, Bates and her crew are continually looking for ways to be more efficient.

The shop has a machine for cutting out the reflective letters and arrows. It not only cuts the shapes automatically, but it also uses a computer to nest the shapes for optimal use of reflective material.

However, there is no skimping when it comes to safety.

“We use the largest background and the largest letters permitted by federal guidelines,” McDonald said. “If it helps older folks see and read them, then it helps you and me.”

Highway markers and designations are essential for road travelers

In a polite voice, a Global Positioning System can tell you where to go. For those without GPS, road signs are their guides.

“Signs are for the first-time visitor, for the stranger,” said Steven McDonald, a state traffic engineer.

With a budget of $5 million a year, the Missouri Department of Transportation sign shop makes 130,000 to 160,000 signs, continually replacing the old with the new.

But, occasionally the signs are incorrect.

On Interstate 70 near Wentzville, a series of signs indicates that St. Louis is 47, 36 and then 40 miles away. After being notified of the problem, Larry Grither, chief traffic engineer for the St. Louis district, said, “The sign will be fixed within a month.”

He said ideally each road sign is inspected every year — in the daytime one year, at night the next.

However, with 540,000 signs on state-maintained roads, the department relies on the public to bring problems to its attention. The public obliges with an average of 4,500 hits on MoDOT’s Web site a month, as high as 15,000 when there’s something major such as a flood. Not all hits reflect problems, of course, as there are some of what Jim Coleman, coordinator of public information, calls “frequent contributors.”

When drivers set out on their journeys, they need to know at least three things: how far it is to their next turn, which direction they need to turn and the name of the street or road they will turn onto. If a turn is 50 miles away, a driver won’t be looking for it in the next block. So, a driver can focus more attention on the surrounding traffic.

On interstates, certain cities act as landmarks. The Federal Highway Department calls them control cities and they are referred to repeatedly on signs. In Missouri, St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia are the control cities.

The distances on highway signs refer to the distance between the sign and a point in the control city. In Columbia the control point is the interchange of I-70 and Missouri 763, Rangeline Road. If a driver sees a sign saying “Columbia — 4 miles,” the driver is four miles from where I-70 intersects Rangeline. The St. Louis control point is next to the Arch. So if the sign says “St. Louis — 40 miles” the city limits are actually closer than 40 miles.


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