Posting Local Roads (sidebar)

(from Maine Townsman, April 2005)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

When winter turns to spring thaw, roads are posted all over Maine. And towns are just as entitled as the state to set regulations to protect the public’s considerable investment in roads, highways and bridges. A single heavy truck, traveling a frost-heaved road breaking up underneath the pavement, can inflict thousands of dollars of damage.

But not all towns know the basics of posting roads, which is a source of concern both for Jim Katsiaficas, a Maine Municipal Association attorney, and for Pete Coughlan, who directs the Maine Local Road Center for the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Rule one, said Katsiaficas, is that towns can only post roads legally if they have passed an ordinance permitting them to do so.

“It isn’t just a matter of going down to the local print shop and buying a blaze orange sign,” he said. “Without an ordinance, you can’t legally post a road. The law is absolutely clear about that.”

Fortunately, road posting ordinances are among the easiest to enact, and fall under the same category of state statute as traffic and parking ordinances. The city or town council, or selectmen, can pass an ordinance after the required public notice, on its own. No separate town meeting vote is needed.

The ordinance itself can follow a model devised by MMA, with the assistance of MDOT, some two decades ago. It’s included on the MMA website, along with other information about road postings.

Because the road posting law has been in effect so long, one would imagine that word about its requirements has gotten around. Such is not the case, however. “Every year, starting about January, we start getting calls about posting roads,” Coughlan said. “The very first thing I ask is, ‘Do you have an ordinance?’ Nine times out of 10, they don’t.”

He recalls a recent conversation with a town manager who had served four towns over nearly 20 years, not all of them small, who called in to ask about posting, and confessed that none of the four towns had ever passed an ordinance.

The advice Katsiaficas and Coughlan both offer is to pass an ordinance before posting any roads. It’s quick, simple and it’s the law.

Towns are allowed to use any reasonable means to promote public safety and protect the taxpayer’s investment. In practice, most follow the state’s guidelines, which reduce the normal 100,000 pound limit on state highways to 23,000 pounds during the posting period, which can last from late February into May.

Travel is legal even when roads are posted during periods – usually nighttime – when they are “solidly frozen,” a term now defined by MDOT. Exceptions are also made for essential services, such as delivery of fuel oil, food and animal feed. An additional exemption, Katsiaficas noted, was passed by the Legislature a few years ago, for well-drilling equipment “in times of drought.” But a well-drilling exemption requires a gubernatorial proclamation, so it is likely to be less used than the other “necessities of life,” he said.

Exceptions definitely do not include construction equipment, concrete rigs, and pulp trucks. “If you start making exceptions for everyone, you might as well not have any rules,” said Coughlan.

Town officials do sometimes offer more flexibility than the state, for which a posted road is a posted road. Permits can be issued for transport by local businesses, sometimes at specified times when the road is less likely to be thawing. And some towns post for lower limits than 23,000 pounds.

“It’s possible that you could have a camp road posted for three tons, a back road posted for seven tons, and a main road posted at 23,000,” Coughlan said. “But it’s not going to be easy to follow all those rules.”

Then there’s the question of enforcement. Towns and cities with their own police forces can ticket violators with relative ease, but municipalities dependent on the county sheriff or State Police may not find it easy to actually keep heavy loads off town roads. Still, it may make sense to post. “Even if you keep half a dozen dump trucks loads from traveling, you’ll do some good,” Coughlan said. “Most people are honest and want to follow the law.”