The Signs, They are A-Changing

Far from the pomp of the inaugural, Maryland's interstate 'welcome' signs get a quick, unceremonious update

January 18, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

Motorists traveled at breakneck speed over the Mason-Dixon Line from Pennsylvania yesterday morning, zooming past the "Maryland Welcomes You" sign. Presumably, few on Interstate 83 South pondered that it would be the last day Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would officially welcome them into the state as governor, his name attached to the bottom of the sign.

At 9:50 a.m., about two hours before Martin O'Malley would be sworn in as Maryland's new governor, a four-man crew from the State Highway Administration was at the sign, replacing Ehrlich's name with O'Malley's.

While the inauguration in Annapolis was marked with pomp, crowds and stem-winding speeches, the changing of metallic white nameplates on the welcome sign was about as ceremonious as a pothole being filled.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section yesterday about Maryland welcome signs incorrectly named the owner of a Web site of welcome-sign photos. The owner is Roger Johnson. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Spokeswoman Valerie Edgar said that in her 17 years at the State Highway Administration, she's seen the names on the border welcome turn from William Donald Schaefer to Parris N. Glendening to Ehrlich to O'Malley. "It's a standard practice," she said matter-of-factly.

Indeed, while the workers made the change, motorists kept flying by as if qualifying for next month's Daytona 500. Perhaps all the southbound drivers at that early hour had all voted in Pennsylvania; no one honked or even slowed to take notice.

But while the change wasn't particularly eventful, it was among the first tangible, official signs of a new administration, and one seen by thousands of motorists as they pass the major entry points into the state. (On the information superhighway, the state's official Web site also was updated with O'Malley's image shortly before he was sworn in as the state's 61st governor by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.)

On the newly constructed Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which connects Maryland to Virginia, the sign change actually went up Tuesday evening. (Maryland not only made its own welcome sign there, but made Virginia's as well as part of a Wilson Bridge Project agreement.)

Signs were updated at 21 state welcome signs and two road project signs, at a total cost of $12,000, Edgar said. In some cases, nameplates were changed. In others, O'Malley's name was placed over Ehrlich's.

At the I-83 greeting near Maryland Line, O'Malley's nameplate was much smaller than Ehrlich's, which had stretched across two panels. The crew needed about 40 minutes to make the change, battling a frigid, blustery wind. They used wet rags to wipe smudge and dirt from the welcome sign's background, with the state flag and black-eyed Susans, then centered and drilled O'Malley's nameplate in place. One worker placed the O'Malley sign on the ground to measure it while another warned, "Don't bend it with your knees."

The crew seemed to appreciate the moment even if passing motorists didn't. They took photos of the changing process, then posed for a group photo when they were done.

State welcome signs are a big deal for some people, including a few who travel to the various states collecting photos of them for personal Web sites.

"This is how all welcome signs should be: easy to get on and off the freeway and right on the actual state line (not miles down the road)," Brian Schick, of Saline, Mich., wrote of Maryland's I-83 welcome on his Web site, schickhappens.net/america. "It has an unconventional shape with the semi-circle top and prominently features its state flag, which I think is the best in the country."

Roger Nelson's Web site of welcome-sign photos from every state (welcometoamerica.us) includes a Maryland Welcomes You sign from Highway 140 outside Emmitsburg, taken in the summer of 2005, that does not include the governor's name. Collecting state welcome sign photos, said Nelson of St. Paul, Minn., is "like collecting anything else, but it's places rather than objects."

Not every state includes the name of its governor on its welcome sign (one less thing for highway crews to worry about every four or eight years). Ohio, for instance, includes the names of both the governor and lieutenant governor, while Virginia's says only "Virginia Welcomes You."

"I'm not aware of the Virginia sign ever containing the governor's name," said Donna Purcell Mayes, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

While sizes, shapes and colors differ, all states are encouraged to abide by signage rules put forth by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The group, which represents all state departments of transportation, has a style guide for "Welcome To" signs in its Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

"Keep in mind that these are guidance rules," spokeswoman Jennifer Gavin said. "It's not as if we're saying, `Thou Shalt Not Do.'"

Among the guidelines: Signs should not be installed among a series of guide signs or other signs critical to motorists. Another offers that signs should be "simple and dignified, devoid of advertisements and within general conformance of other guide signing."

The Maryland welcome sign on I-83 meets all those criteria, plus is far enough from the busy interstate to keep the sign-changing crew from being distracted. Moments after they were packing up to leave, a steady gridlock did form along the road.

At last, a stream of onlookers slowing to peer at the name of a new governor and feel a sense of history?

No, just a convoy creeping behind a truck carrying a wide load.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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