COLUMBIA — City officials are struggling to find a good way to combat the continuing trend of thieves making off with street name signs.
In the past year alone, the Public Works Department has replaced more than 1,600 street signs at a cost of about $100 apiece.
“It’s costly, and it’s costing taxpayers money every time we have to replace a sign,” Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said. “That’s what people need to realize; it may be a prank, but they’re costing the taxpayers money.”
One alternative being discussed is the idea of painting street names on the curb. While the initial cost would be fairly cheap, at only $20 per location, there are several potential problems with the plan, according to a Public Works report to the Columbia City Council.
Maintenance is the main challenge. In the winter, snow would cover the street names and the paint would wear off from exposure to weather. The report also noted that curbs can be hit by cars and break off.
Street names on curbs also would be hard to see at night, or they could be blocked from view by parked cars.
Stedem agreed the idea is far from foolproof.
“There’s a lot of streets that don’t have curbs that could be painted, so while it could be ideal in some places, it wouldn’t work in others.”
While missing street signs might seem to be no big deal, they can cause major hassles for emergency responders who end up having trouble locating people who need help.
“It absolutely causes a problem as far as being able to find a caller,” Emergency Management Director Jim McNabb said. “You can have a general idea of where you’re going, but if it’s dark out it can be very difficult. Delays can range from no delay at all to potentially never finding the caller.”
Street sign theft is especially problematic in areas where a lot of college students live, such as along Bearfield Drive and University Avenue. Stedem said that while these locations are problem areas, there’s no way to pinpoint who’s responsible.
“There’s a lot of assumptions that it’s college kids doing it as a prank, but we really have no way of saying who did it.”
The most popular signs among thieves are High Street, streets with beer names, such as Corona Road, and streets with common last names, such as Smith Street. The street sign for Rolling Rock Drive is so frequently stolen that the Public Works Department decided to place it on a higher pole to keep thieves from stealing it.
That hasn’t entirely solved the problem, however, Stedem said.
“Now people just climb the pole to get it. We can replace it on Friday, and by Monday morning it’s gone again.”
Although McNabb agreed missing street signs are a problem, he said painting names on curbs is not the answer.
“It’s not really a practical solution, and it’s definitely not an alternative,” he said. “It could be an enhancement, but you still need to have those street signs; otherwise drivers don’t know what they’re supposed to be looking for.”
McNabb also said it would be a bad idea to mix street names on curbs with signs on poles. Having both could be useful, but “uniformity and consistency in street signs is imperative.”
If caught, thieves can be charged with misdemeanor theft, which is punishable by up to a year in prison, community service or a fine.
An interesting comparison can be drawn between Columbia and the similarly sized city of Lawrence, Kan., home of the University of Kansas. Stedem said Lawrence has no budget for replacing street signs because there is simply no problem with theft. One possible reason: the city simply doesn’t name streets after beer brands.
Another potential alternative is to attach street signs to taller, larger poles, but they would have to meet Federal Highway Administration requirements.