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October 23. 2013 8:55PM

Interstate signs for services not happening anytime soon

CONCORD — Restaurants and hotels and the rest of the tourism industry will have to wait before interstate highway service signs will bear their names and logos.

New Hampshire is one of only five states not allowing service signs on interstate highways although they are at exit ramps.

Senate Bill 29 would allow the service signs with the logo and name of restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. on the interstates and would also allow the Department of Transportation to contract with a private company to sell, install and maintain the signs.

The House Public Works and Highways Committee voted 13-2 to send the bill to interim study. The committee can recommend legislation for the 2015 session, but the next Legislature will decide whether to take action.

Chambers of Commerce and the hospitality industry backed the bill, saying it will help the state's second biggest industry — tourism — and add revenues to the state's coffers.

"The New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association supports SB 29 because as a state that relies heavily on tourism we must recognize that service information provided at the appropriate time while traveling our highways is one small convenience that adds to a positive visitor experience," said Mike Somers, president and CEO of the organization. "The information that would be provided through this sign program will help drive visitors to our members and ultimately generate revenue for the state."

But several members of the committee said tourists do not come to the state for signs, they come here to see the natural beauty, mountains and foliage.

"I oppose any expansion. Enjoying the scenic beauty of New Hampshire is the primary reason they come here," said House Minority Leader and former long-time public works chairman, Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett. "People in the North Country do not favor these types of things once you get up where the visitors come to look at our mountains and foliage."

The bill was requested by the Department of Transportation, which runs the program but is forbidden by state law from making a profit on it.

New Hampshire is one of 45 states that participates in the federal Motorist Service Signing Program, but is the only state to prohibit the service signs on the interstate highways.

The federal program allows four exit signs, two in each direction on exit ramps and sets the size of the billboards that hold up to six logo signs.

The department said the service sign program requires employees to spend time on the signs that could be better spent doing other sign work, according to Bill Lambert, state traffic engineer.

He said the department believes it can allow the logo signs on the interstate highways but would like to turn over operations and maintenance to a private company.

Just the exit signs would not generate enough interest for a private company to bid, Lambert told the committee.

But Rep. Kevin Waterhouse, R-Windham, said allowing the logo signs on the highway is a major change of policy.

"This is the information age. People aren't out there without resources," he said. "Lady Bird Johnson worked to get billboards off our highways, and now you're trying to put them back up again."

Sending the bill to interim study would kill it, said Rep. Peter Ramsey, D-Manchester.

"Almost the entire New Hampshire tourism industry is asking us to help them at a time when it is difficult for them," Ramsey said, "It is discouraging to me. This is the second largest industry in New Hampshire and we're ignoring them."

The bill will come before the House during one of the first three session days of the 2014 Legislature.

The committee also voted to recommend that House Bill 534 be approved by the full House. The bill establishes a committee to study the sale of naming rights or sponsorships for state-owned structures such as rest areas.

And the committee voted to approve Senate Bill 15, to name a section of Route 101 after the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles, and House Bill 684, which allows cities and towns to replace closed bridges in the state's 10-year highway plan and collect money from the state in the future.

grayno@unionleader.com


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