Lower Merion Township this year has fought several battles to maintain their sense of historic pride and community. One of the bigger battles, for the Barnes Foundation art collection, may have been lost, but in the shadows there has been one victory.
Back in January the township, like other small communities across Pennsylvania, was given a deadline to change all street signs to a standard sign issued by PennDOT. Ardmore-Merion-Wynnewood Patch reported that by 2018 all streets—everything from major intersections to meandering one-way neighborhoods—would have to begin using the issued signs, which feature a highly reflective coating and very, very large lettering. One thing that perplexed Lower Merion and other communities was the fact the state was not giving municipalities the money to fund the switch.
“It literally affects every corner in the township.” —Christian Busch, chairman, L.M. Historical Commission
In early March, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to apply for an exemption waiver to the federal regulations due to the impending costs that would fall onto the township. There is also a section of the township that feels the street names signs are a pivotal historical representation of Lower Merion.
“They are sense of our community and some of them have been here for a hundred years,” explained Christian Busch, Chairman of the Historical Commission. “We deal with one building at a time on the Historical Commission, but think of these—there is one on every block, on every corner in the township.
“There’s thousands of them, and to me that’s more important that a single building. It literally affects every corner in the township.”
With the impending removal of the street signs slowly becoming a reality, the Historical Commission took aim to find a way to protect them under local historical preservation measures. The problem was Lower Merion’s historical preservation umbrella did not protect “things”—only buildings, structures, or sites.
According to Busch, during a street-widening project on Montgomery Avenue about two years ago, PennDot had removed and “lost” 18 of the historical street name signs. He continued to explain that if the signs had been protected, community advocates such as the Historical Commission and the Lower Merion Conservancy would have been consulted to develop a plan to prevent the loss of the signs.
The cast-iron signs also hold a “green” significance. The new replacement signs are only supposed to last about ten years and then simply be thrown away and replaced. Meanwhile, historical street name signs have lasted almost a century, with minimal upkeep. Busch said some of the most recent “touch-ups” were done about 15 years ago.
“We have what is a green or sustainable street sign as it is, and we don’t want to use these new ones,” said Busch.
In April, Lower Merion received a bit of good news. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood allowed Lower Merion to keep their “historical monuments.” But LaHood’s letter also said, “If a community determines it needs street name signs for safety and navigational reasons, however, those signs would need to conform with (the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices).”
There had been no accidents attributed to the street name signs.
Busch and other members of the Historical Commission wanted more of an explanation of the letter. Lower Merion could keep the signs, but what did the other half mean?
To clarify the need for “safety and navigational reasons,” the Historical Commission went to the police to determine whether the visibility or any other aspect of the signs were unsafe for the community. The search found there had been absolutely no accidents attributed to the street name signs.
In early August, Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey introduced a bill to repeal the federal mandate that required municipalities like Lower Merion to replace road signs. He felt the mandate was too expensive and most of the affected communities would not have the money to make the conversion.
By the end of August, the cast-iron historical street name signs were safe. For the time being.
Toomey announced the 2018 conversion deadline was lifted. Not only was this a local win, but while the state was pushing municipalities to cover the costs in their area, PennDOT was looking at a $10 million project for the entire state. It was a financial and historical victory for Lower Merion and the communities of Pennsylvania who keep one foot in the past and their eyes on the future.