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Cook County road signs raise eyebrows
Cook County spending $120,000 to put up arcane road markers that are of little use to motorists

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by John Hilkevitch

Alan Kuska was tooling down Roberts Road in the southwest suburbs when he noticed a new, completely baffling road sign.

W32? What does that mean?

It turns out the sign is part of a new program by Cook County to put in 1,300 route markers whose sole purpose is letting drivers know they are on a road owned and maintained by the county.

The message behind the signs isn't at all clear to motorists, who are paying for them—an estimated $120,000 over two years—through motor fuel taxes.

County officials say they are posting the signs "as a public service."

But the route numbers on the signs do not correspond to state routes or U.S. highways. Instead, the alpha-numeric designations are only used by the Cook County Highway Department. They have no meaning to the public.

East-west routes begin with the letter A, B or C, followed by a number.

The W doesn't apply to west, but to north-south routes. Those can also start with a V.

"From what I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to the W32," said Kuska of Forest Park. "It isn't as if Bridgeview is a rural area or that the local police and fire departments have any trouble finding addresses. I think the signs are a waste of money."

The signs are being posted at about 1-mile intervals and at the beginning and end of routes on the 1,500-mile network of county-maintained roads, said Rupert Graham, superintendent of the county Highway Department.

Even though Cook drivers have gotten along fine without any county markers, Graham said department officials decided to install the signs through next year because some other counties have similar signage. The Cook County Board approved the project, he said.

Neither the Federal Highway Administration nor the Illinois Department of Transportation requires such signage.

"The signs may not mean anything to the public, but we are informing the public that these are county roads," Graham said, adding that unlike some road signs in other jurisdictions, the new county markers do not tout the names of any politicians.

The signs, however, are being made by Western Remac Inc. of Woodridge, the same company that made the open-road tolling signs emblazoned with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's name on Illinois toll roads. The former governor's name was covered up on the tollway signs this month after his impeachment conviction.

The Cook County route marker sign contract was awarded to Western Remac in January. The company was the low bidder at $60,000 a year over two years, officials said, adding that the county Highway Department does not operate a sign shop.

On Tuesday, county commissioners gave preliminary approval to a nearly $3 billion budget after approving cuts to Board President Todd Stroger's spending proposal.The route markers represent the emerging standard for highway departments around the country, said Chris Geovanis, a spokeswoman for the county.

"We are not technically required by law to put them up. The thinking is that with no signage, there virtually is no way for people to know who to contact if they hit a big pothole or skid on some black ice and need to report unsafe conditions," Geovanis said.

"It makes it easier to attribute responsibility for maintenance in areas where multiple jurisdictions are involved," she said.

Drivers remain skeptical.

"I wonder why it's needed in days of budget shortfalls," said Richard Smith of Tinley Park. "These signs don't serve a purpose to the motoring public, and they surely weren't cheap to produce and install."

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