Federal Highway Administration proposes sign regulation changes, raises concern

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Specific Service highway signs on the side of highway with grass and a parking lot with trucks behind it. The first sign reads
The Specific Service Signs in the image above showing drivers how to reach FOOD and GAS establishments near an exit off the Interstate. (Source: here)

In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed changes to regulations states must follow when installing signs informing drivers which services—including food, gas, and lodging—are available at highway exits. Despite the current count of 34,857 non-gasoline fueling stations open to the public, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has announced a pending decision that advocates say does not incorporate alternative fuel signage fairly into existing sign regulations.

Map of the United States with many green, blue, orange, and brown triangles all over indicating publicly accessible alternative fueling stations across the country.
The map above shows 34,857 publicly accessible alternative fueling stations that provide either Biodiesel, Compressed Natural Gas, Electric Vehicle Charging, Ethanol, hydrogen, liquefied natural gas or Propane. (Source: here)

The FHWA issued a public notice of proposed changes to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD. The MUTCD defines the standards used by road managers nationwide to install and maintain traffic control devices on all public streets, highways, bikeways and private roads open to public travel.

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The FHWA plans to prohibit non-gasoline fueling station logos from appearing on Specific Service signs. Under the new rules, states would only be allowed to display alternative fuel signage using General Service signs. Also, the FHWA will only allow a new Alternative Fuels Corridor identification sign to be used by states if they pair it with a series of General Service signs.

Michael Staley, president of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition (ACFC), said these MUTCD changes proposed by the FHWA are inconsistent with laws passed by Congress and goals the FHWA has published in the federal register and on their Alternative Fuel Corridors website. 

Staley says states should be given the flexibility to incorporate non-gasoline fueling stations into both their General Service and Specific Service sign programs—giving alternative fuel signage parity with gasoline stations.

“This action by the FHWA is not only contrary to the goals of the Alternative Fuel Corridors program but it also goes against everything else going on in the transportation industry,” Staley said. “There is tremendous growth in the adoption of non-gasoline fuels by consumers and commercial users, so it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to be making it more difficult for drivers to find fuels other than gasoline.”

Blue square highway sign with large white "H" that indicates hospital with white arrow below.
This General Service Sign informs a driver that
a hospital is ahead and to the right. (Source:
here

Since the MUTCD was last updated in 2009, Congress established the Alternative Fuel Corridors program through Section 1413 of the FAST Act.  Between 2016 and 2020, more than 149,000 miles of the national highway system were designated with more designations expected in 2021. The law that created this program established a clear intent to improve access to fuels for passenger and commercial vehicles that employ electric, hydrogen fuel cell, propane and natural gas fueling technologies across the U.S.

The FHWA has maintained in writing that it intends to support the expansion of the Alternative Fuel Corridors program by developing “national signage and branding to help catalyze applicant and public interest” and “promote the ‘build-out’ of a national network.”  

Map of the United States with red lines cross between states to indicate either ready or pending alternative fuel corridors.
The map above shows corridors designated as either Corridor-Pending or Corridor-Ready by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). (Source: here)

The FHWA proposal does include a new Alternative Fuels Corridor identification sign that could be used to inform drivers of the existence of a designated corridor.  However, states will be prohibited from using this new sign unless they also install a series of General Service signs.

Staley said states may choose not to sign for alternative fuels if they are only allowed to do so using General Service signs.

John Barnett, manager of the propane autogas program at U-Haul International, said it is important for autogas to have the ability to be signed for on Specific Service signs as more fleets are converted to clean-burning fuels over time.

One large blue square that says "Alternative Fuels Corridor" atop two smaller blue squares with images of gas pumps that read "CNG" and "LNG"
Above is an example of an Alternative Fuels Corridor General Identification sign the FHWA proposes but will only allow it to be used in conjunction with General Service signs. 

“Most of the vehicles utilizing propane autogas are fleet vehicles running long routes on the freeway. Drivers exiting the freeway may not realize that U-Haul is the business providing the alternative fuel they need, and they could become distracted trying to locate generic symbols and arrows to find their service station,” Barnett said. “A logo sign indicating that U-Haul has propane autogas for sale will result in much clearer instruction, less distracted drivers and safer roads for everyone.”

Jonathan Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, co-leads a group with ACFC called the Southeast Corridor Council. Overly said that changing “GAS” to “FUEL” and allowing states to sign for alternative fueling stations on both General Service and Specific Service signs is a reasonable solution.

“We’ve been studying this issue for over two years and it appears that some at FHWA don’t understand our collective need in the USA to start supporting the rapid expansion in the use of alternative fuels, and the signage that needs to support it,” Overly said. “The transportation sector accounts for the largest percentage of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and this proposal makes it look like the federal government is picking gasoline as the winner over all other fuels. The government should create a fair playing field where different fuels can compete against each other, instead of picking winners and losers.”

See more about the alternative fuel corridors project here.

To reach Michael Staley to please email [email protected].

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