What's with the blank "ATTRACTIONS" signs on I-95?

When Barbara Rice's brother visited last year, she said he noticed one of the large blue signs on Interstate 95 that reads, "ATTRACTIONS" at the top but has nothing listed.

Rice recalled her brother joking, "I guess Connecticut doesn't have any attractions."

While calling him a "smart aleck," it got her thinking — and now, more than a year later, the signs are still blank.

Bill Stewart also got to thinking about the signs, when driving from his home in North Stonington to New London a couple times a week. He thought the state's replacement of all sorts of signs in the area "was an absolutely great idea, because the signs that had been scheduled to be replaced were in terrible condition."

But he was curious about the blank attractions signs, and waited for months for something to happen with them. State plans show there are 17 of the large blue signs in both directions between North Stonington and New London, plus smaller signs on the exit ramps.

"Living in southeastern Connecticut, it's supposed to be the mecca for vacationers, [so] it was kind of weird to see all these attractions signs with no attractions to bring anybody off the highway," he said with a laugh on Friday.

Both Rice and Stewart asked The Day about the attractions signs earlier this year as part of our CuriousCT initiative.

Robert McMullen, project manager and estimator with Quaker Corporation, the firm hired by the state to install the signs, says he hopes the panels listing the attractions will be up in the next month.

This has been a long time coming, considering the Connecticut Department of Transportation first held signage meetings in Stonington and Groton in 2016.

Each attraction sign can have between one and six "attraction panels" attached to it. There will be 25 attractions listed on the signs between exits 83 and 93 on I-95, according to the contract plans for this region.

There will be standard lettering for 18 of them, which includes Ocean Beach Park, UConn Avery Point, Fields of Fire, Historic Mystic Downtown/Drawbridge and more.

The remaining seven — Mitchell College, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, Connecticut College, Shaw Mansion, Submarine Veterans Memorial, Submarine Force Museum, and New England Science & Sailing Foundation — have opted for custom logos.

These places must have their panels created at their own expense, but otherwise, there is no fee for businesses or organizations that meet a list of requirements to be listed on an attractions sign.

Since attractions signs can't be installed on the Gold Star Bridge, three signs for New London attractions off exits 83, 84N and 84S will be placed on I-95 southbound in Groton.

An abridged history of attractions signs between the Thames River and Rhode Island

In January 2012, then-DOT Commissioner James Redeker established an internal task force to review standards and regulations for highway signs. The result was a 48-page document of signing guidelines published in November 2012, which established the Tourist Attraction Sign Program for Limited Access Highways.

The state defines "attractions" as "businesses, facilities, or sites whose primary purpose is satisfying the needs of visitors from outside the immediate area" — those traveling 20 miles or more — "for recreational, educational, scientific, environmental, natural, cultural, heritage/historical, or entertainment related activities."

DOT held meetings to explain the Tourist Attraction Sign Program — one in Stonington in March 2016, and ones in Groton in April and August 2016, DOT spokesperson Kevin Nursick said.

Along with employees of the Town of Groton, City of Groton, New London and Stonington, the meetings included representatives from Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, the Stonington Borough Merchants Association, Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Submarine Force Museum and Thames River Heritage Park.

"The (Stonington) borough merchants are struggling, and we just need to get people down there, and the signage is a big deal," said Sandra Sharr, who decided that as a former state employee who knows how to navigate the system, she would correspond with DOT on behalf of the merchants. Her fiancée, Marc Fishbone, owns Black Orchid Jewelers.

Sharr said the state has been good about responding to her, and that in April 2017, she was involved in the decision to put borough signage at exit 91 rather than 90. The attraction sign will include Historic Stonington Borough, Captain Palmer House and the Old Lighthouse Museum.

Former City of Groton Mayor Marian Galbraith said she worked with the U.S. Submarine Veterans to get their memorial listed.

On Aug. 31, 2016, the state sent out an invitation to bid for Project 172-342, the replacement of various highway signs in Groton, Stonington and North Stonington. The 54 attraction signs amounted to 3.5 percent of total signing square footage in the project and 0.75 percent of the total project cost, Nursick said.

Rizzo Electric President Tony Rebeiro said his company received the notice of being the low bidder — at $6.3 million — in October 2016 but he didn't get the notice to proceed until April 1, 2017. That's because of a December-March shutdown on jobs, when the state might need to be plowing snow.

In 2017, the company was mostly working on drilling and pouring concrete for the sign foundations, he said. Workers also put up the smaller, post-driven signs, such as mile markers and speed limit signs.

Rebeiro said the blank attractions signs were installed in the 2018 construction season.

Relaying comments from the DOT construction field office, Nursick said the designs for the panels were not ready before the signs were installed, and that a decision was made to install the signs "as this work is extensive and includes significant foundation work."

The fabrication and installation of panels for those signs was added as an addendum to Project 170-3447, which primarily dealt with replacing large overhead sign structures in the central and southwestern parts of the state.

"It is imperative that these attraction signs be installed as soon as possible under this project," a Sept. 28, 2018 contract provision for the addendum stated. The deadline for the bid was Oct. 10, Quaker Corporation was selected, and Robert McMullen said the company started work on April 1.

DOT had to approve the seven custom logos, and both Nursick and McMullen indicated there was an issue in getting the designs in the appropriate electronic format. Nursick said the contractor received all the original digital artwork files the week of July 22.

McMullen said Quaker subcontracted with Lightle Signs in Ohio for the fabrication of the attraction panels, and with the Milford-based Discount Fence for their forthcoming installation. Nursick said the attraction panels will be fastened to the signs, in place, using rivets.

e.moser@theday.com

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