Interstate project puts business logo signs at center stage

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Neil Johnson
Friday, May 6, 2016

JANESVILLE—Ron Mallon has been on a waiting list 22 years to get his Milton Avenue Culver's restaurant featured on a blue state sign along the spur of Interstate 90-39 that cuts through Janesville's east side.

In that time, Mallon said, only one Janesville business has ever turned over its dinner plate-sized space and made room for another business to advertise. 

That was Country Kitchen, a restaurant that closed in 2007, he said.

Mallon is among dozens of businesses operators along the Interstate who are trying to prepare for the lane expansion the state Department of Transportation plans along I-90/39 between Beloit and Madison.

It's a given that the project will bring lane and exit closures and detours over the next five years, and the state admits it has a role in easing traveler confusion during the upheaval. 

The placement of those blue logo signs along the right of way has become a central focus for the state and local businesses that don't want to get lost in the shuffle.

The blue signs—known as Specific Information Signs—are viewed by travelers as much as the green state signs that mark highway exits and distances between communities, and as such, are coveted by businesses. For one thing, they're cheaper to rent—about $10 a month, the DOT says—than space on privately owned billboards.

The state calls some of the signs “traffic generators” because they're meant to funnel people to attractions off the highway.

In Janesville, some signs—including business logo signs—will have to be temporarily removed as crews tear up the road to add lanes and reconfigure on- and off-ramps.

That was one concern raised Tuesday at a workshop led by Matthew Rausch, a state DOT road sign engineer. Rausch spoke to about 25 Janesville business operators about the application process with the state and second-party contractor that administers space on blue logo signs.

Rausch said the DOT is in the midst of planning how to temporarily replace those signs as work progresses.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, successfully pushed through a bill earlier this year that creates more flexibility on the number of blue logo signs and spaces available on them.

The law allows up to four signs to be clustered around exits on the Interstate, and it permits twice as many spaces on the signs, including room for attractions such as museums.

“That's a move in the right direction,” Rauch said, and it does clear up one political headache for DOT officials and politicians who've had to deal with anxious business owners.

But in Janesville, the law won't mean a boom in new blue signs, DOT engineers say.

There are about 30 blue signs in the 12-mile span along I-90/39 between Shopiere Road and the Highway 14 exit on Janesville's north side. Not all are logo signs; they include signs that show the locations of colleges, hospitals and attractions, too.

The problem: Earlier, the state allowed more blue logo signs around Janesville than was allowable under state law.

Before Loudenbeck's bill became law, the “nonconforming” signs might have been removed permanently. The new law allows them to stay, but the heavy concentration of business logos on them nearly sews up all the slack written in the new law, said Derek Potter, an I-90/39 expansion project manager with the DOT. That's despite the fact that the signs still have spaces on them.

Potter and Rauch also said the law doesn't erase the requirement that logo signs be placed at the exit nearest to the businesses shown on them.

Rauch said the DOT is in talks with the state transportation secretary about other adjustments to sign laws, which he said could bring more changes. However, recommendations from those talks won't reach the state Legislature until January 2017. 

For now, businesses such as Mallon's could stay on a years-long waiting list for state sign space.

Mallon told The Gazette he's not as edgy about the I-90/39 expansion and its impacts on blue logo signs. He's more dissatisfied with the state's method of delegating space on the signs.

Instead of having businesses stuck on a 22-year waiting list, Mallon thinks the state should parse out space through an open bidding process when the spots come open.

Other states do so, he said, suggesting it would create more revenue for the state.  

“Whether or not it was ever intended, there's the message to anybody traveling on the Interstate that the businesses on those blue (logo) signs are getting a ringing endorsement from the state of Wisconsin,” Mallon said. “What about all the other businesses?”

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