Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The $77,000 question (AKA, adventures in confusion and clarity)

By guest blogger Jamie Holter

Boy, our Street Smarts answer in the Everett Herald sure sparked a lot of debate this week. We responded to a reader question about the cost of putting a sign in a particular location. In the original article (printed two weeks ago), we were explaining why we DIDN’T put the sign in the location because, among other things, cost was an issue. When we were explaining how costs can be high, we used an outside, worst-case scenario number factoring in everything that could go wrong as support for our position to not put up the sign. We also tried to explain that putting up a sign is not as simple as pounding a couple posts into the ground. We threw out some upper end, worst-case scenario numbers…and they went viral.

Example of a sign that can cost up to $10,000

KIRO 97.3 radio host Dori Monson challenged us live on air to compare his cost list to ours. Here’s the interview. Here’s a write up. (Incidentally, I like this one because it shows a picture of the kind of sign and many people think we are talking about a small side-of-the-road speed limit sign.) As you heard, the end result shows Monson Construction and WSDOT were about the same.

Then KOMO AM 1000’s Ken Schram gave us the Schrammie. If you don’t know, that’s an award he gives out each week for waste or a “duh” moment. What can I say? WSDOT is low-hanging fruit for the media.

Example of a sign that can cost up to $77,000

So here, once again, is an attempt at the breakdown of possible costs – all variable of course due to the location and size of the sign: There is coordination with utilities so you don’t cut fiber lines; there’s ordering the sign, building the sign with special bracing so it doesn’t flap in the wind, driving to and from the site, gas for all the vehicles, digging holes, placing rebar, pouring concrete, installing anchor plates, closing lanes for several hours, bringing a hoist out to place the 15-foot tall posts and setting up the 250 pound sign. It’s specially designed to “break away” so when someone hits it, drivers won’t be injured. You need special materials for that. Returning to the area a second time when the concrete has cured to finish the work. All in all, this particular kind of sign in a similar location cost $10,000. Our workers make $20/hour. When they work at night they get an additional 65 cents an hour.

We work hard to keep our costs down and our transparency up. We work hard to explain the process of following laws, laws designed to keep people safe on the highways, laws designed to keep our water and air clean (AKA “environmental regulations”), laws that say signs must be large enough you can see them with old eyes driving by at 65 miles per hour and laws that say you can’t kill someone with a defective sign after you build it and walk away.

It is frustrating to us when we try to be accountable to taxpayers and explain a worst case and best case scenarios, readers and media quickly jump to the worst numbers.


Anonymous said...

So are you saying it cost 10k in another location and this one cost 77k ? Even with all that work .. I don't buy it it cost 77k. Ordering a sign would max maybe take a few hours at 20 dollars an hour.

Should we have to file a FOIA request to actually see the entire breakdown in numbers?

seascorpio82 said...

Hey, I didn't get all caught up in the hype because I don't think a lot of people really consider what it takes to get things done. They see an apple at the grocery store and it might seem like the value of an apple in their stomach is 50 cents, but they forget that they have to pay the grocery store for it's storage/refrigeration, pay the produce department to place it, the delivery service to deliver it (which includes gas, insurance, driver pay, etc), the farm who raised it and all the costs there....etc etc etc. I'm glad to have heard this clip tho cuz it shows me you guys aren't just ignoring it! Thanks for the good work!

Jeremy Bertrand said...

Mr. Anonymous,
No one ever put up the sign. Someone requested it. We explained why we didn’t plan to put a sign up there. Among the reasons was cost. That’s where we got into the entire discussion of what it COULD cost given the 10-thousand things that could go awry. The$77,000 sign is one that WOULD go across all five lanes of traffic. The $30,000 sign is one that COULD go on the side of the road. But since neither sign was ever actually put up, these were just examples. In reality, a sign we recently put up was $10,000.

As for what it costs to install a sign, please listen to Dori Monson’s interview. He went down that same path in his live discussion and you will see that he got to the same number after a 10 minute discussion with us.

Jeremy Bertrand said...

Thank you @seascorpio82. We appreciate your support. We try hard to educate as we go. That’s why we write these blogs ;-)

Bridget said...

I think some of the procedures should be simplified or eliminated to bring the cost down. Even $10k for a sign seems WAY too expensive to me.

Mark said...

I don't think most people actually realize how large any of these signs have to be in order to be read at freeway speeds.

Anonymous said...

The biggest difference between the state doing it and a construction company installing the signs is that the construction company makes a profit, pays taxes instead of eating them up and helps support Washington.
The state doesn't make a profit or pay taxes. The do the same job at the same cost but lose money in the process.

Scott Wilson said...

I spent a few years working for the DOT,granted they do a lot of things differently. Signs though are quite the beast. The two things I enjoyed most about the DOT were snow removal and signs. Both are challenging and require a pretty high skill level to accomplish. Back to signs and costs.
First call a sign shop and price a 4X8 1/8" aluminum sign that has black letters on a white background. Two,three foot numbers. Say a 7 and a 0 and 10 letters that are 18" each. The white background has to reflect light just enough so that the numbers can be seen at night but not so much that it distracts the driver and it needs a ten year design life. Then put three 1/2" holes equally spaced down the middle. Oh,and put a six inch radius on the corners so there are no sharp edges. Now we need a post. The wind can't blow it over or break it off, so we need a wind load. Let's say a hundred mile an hour wind with a load of 80lbs per square foot. There are 48 sq ft in our sign.Our post needs a fracture strength of >3840lbs A 4X4 won't cut it so a 6X6 should work.It needs to go 4 feet in the ground and 8 feet up the sign, because there is no pedestrian traffic it should be 5 feet from the pavement. Let's see 4+8+5,17 feet of post. OK, lets dig the hole and drop er in. Wait. It's bigger than a 4X4 so it needs to have break away holes drilled in the base so that when a car hits it doesn't kill the driver. Now three 3" holes need to be drilled into the base of the post after we get it planted. I hope it's still strong enough. Couple guys trucks and gen set and we are finished. All this and it's just one of thousands of speed limit signs across the state that you and I own. If it's not installed just right, that $4,000 sign can cost us millions after the driver that hits it gets all lawyered up. Maybe our focus should be more on liability and TORT claims, then the sign cost could come down a bit. Run down to the library and check out a book. It's the MUTCD. I may have left out a letter, it's been awhile. That will help explain the cost of a sign.

Eric Scouten said...

I appreciate this writeup on what goes into signage ithis state.

One thing that frustrates me is the haphazard design and layout of WSDot signage.

I moved here from Minnesota several years ago. Every time I return to MN for a visit, I admire the consistent, well-thought out signage and I wish similar standards were applied here.

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