Federal Guidelines for Sign Standards
Federal guidelines governing street signs, pavement markings and all other standards for streets and roads open to public traffic are published in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The latest standards reflect updates on safety and are intended to enhance the ability of drivers to read signs more quickly. This is achieved by requiring the lettering and materials for signs to meet certain standards when replaced. In addition, a sign “retroreflectivity” standard should be followed for all future sign replacements. It is important for cities to conduct a sign inventory to comply with these and other sign standards.
For most roads, cities need to adhere to standards for sign type and placement established by the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT). For most types of signs, IDOT uses the most recent version of the MUTCD as the standard. As illustrated in this manual traffic sign placement and standards vary widely depending on the location and type of sign to be placed. Funding is generally the responsibility of the city; although maximum speed signs are generally furnished and placed on primary roads (or extensions of primary roads) within a city by IDOT. To help navigate sign type and placement standards a city should consult the MUTCD. In addition, a guide to basic sign issues has been prepared by the Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE) at Iowa State University. The guide Iowa Traffic Control Devices and Pavement Markings: A Manual for Cities and Counties should provide cities with an overview of basic sign placement issues, but cities should ultimately rely on the MUTCD for the most currently applicable standards in place.
IDOT Sign Replacement Program
IDOT has established the Sign Replacement Program to help communities replace damaged, obsolete or substandard signs and signposts.The program provides up to $5,000 for signs and signposts per applying community on a first come first serve basis. This program does not provide signs for new installations, and cities are responsible for assessing need, ordering, locating and installing the signs provided for by the program.
Local Sign Ordinances
In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city’s sign code violates the First Amendment. Many, if not most, Iowa communities must revise their sign codes as a result of this 2015 decision. Most sign codes apply different rules to different categories of signs based on content, which the Supreme Court now generally prohibits. Cities should work with their city attorney to update their local sign ordinance.