Street sign theft a costly problem

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 5:15 p.m. CST; updated 4:24 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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.


Check out the Missourian’s Public Life blog at to learn how other Big 12 college towns combat the theft of street signs.

“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.

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Ray Shapiro January 9, 2009 | 12:34 a.m.

I thought I've read the same article in the Missourian every year.
This one is from 2007.
If it's still a costly problem, maybe there's something a creative engineer can do to make this more difficult.
Is this a problem in St. Louis and Kansas City?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr January 9, 2009 | 3:44 a.m.

This has been an ongoing problem long before here in Columbia across this entire nation and still nobody can build the better proverbial mouse trap. Some cities have their street signs on four sided flat faced poles of a permanent nature. I am sure some readers here have seen street signs that way if you have traveled to other far reaching areas.

(Report Comment)
John Beaumonte January 9, 2009 | 7:19 a.m.

I like the curb painting of the street names the best, however, during inclement weather the City plows just the main streets and the rest remain snow-covered, including cul-de-sacs like mine. Emergency services are hampered at this point as was mentioned in the article. Another street sign that is frequently stolen is Keystone and it's not college students out South of town who are doing the stealing, it's high-school-aged kids. As long as parents' attitudes toward theft of street signs continue to be, "who cares", or "hey, that's pretty cool!" then this will continue to be out of control. We all should be looking at what $35,000 could be applied toward such as street/sidewalk repair and start reporting these incidents of theft when we see them happen or we are to blame. Isn't it also a liability issue for the City if a medical problem occurs and emergency services can't do their jobs because of a missing street sign, even if it wasn't reported? Ultimately, it boils down to our kids' characters will be the byproduct of the values they learned from us, their parents.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 9, 2009 | 8:55 a.m.

Place a concrete post with the names of the streets etched into it. That'll fix 'em.


(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr January 9, 2009 | 9:09 a.m.

That is one idea Mark Foecking except when they begin to spray paint them to look like huge candy I stated above some cities use a four sides post at street corners for their signs but the lettering is hard to read on them.

I guess you could always sink in telephone type poles at corners and attach the signs up onto those about 7-8 feet up them coat the poles in that nasty black pitch they use to help persevere them then if somebody wants that sign that bad the earned the right to get it. That pitch stuff is really nasty smelling and quite permanent in nature once onto your clothing.

(Report Comment)
John M. Nowell, III January 9, 2009 | 9:13 a.m.

On the street signs with high turnover, why not just rivet them onto the pole rather than bolt them in place, or better yet, weld them to the pole?

Install a web camera in some secluded spot to monitor at the police station, and catch them in the act and prosecute with alot of publicity. I imagine that would discourage thieft.

(Report Comment)

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