ALBANY -- Federal highway regulators say they have "promises" from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration to take down the controversial I Love NY signs that now dot highways across the state. But the state suggests that's not the case.
Despite the latest federal comments, the state Department of Transportation claims it has not been ordered to take the signs down -- despite a 2014 request to do just that.
So goes the latest round in the ongoing, back-and-forth battle over the omnipresent blue signs, which are at the center of a four-year stalemate between the Federal Highway Administration and state DOT that could lead to New York being stripped of millions in highway funds.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, said this week his agency believes the state is working toward removing the 514 signs.
"The FHWA believes the state is attempting to make good on its promises to remove these signs, but is considering additional actions if necessary," Hecox said in a statement.
Asked about Hecox's statement, state DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said they haven't heard from the federal regulators recently.
He went a step further, claiming the state has not been told to take the signs down, though a 2014 letter from the FHWA appears to contradict that claim.
"We have not heard anything new from FHWA on this issue, nor have we been directed to take any signs down," Morrissey said in a statement.
Federal regulators have long said the signs violate laws and rules regulating what can and can't be displayed on roadways. The signs display web addresses and use fonts and logos that aren't allowed, and are also placed so close to each other that they could cause distraction to drivers, according to the FHWA.
The signs, which are often grouped in five and placed in rapid succession, are spread along highways and near airports all across the state. They tout the state's various tourism programs, including Taste NY and the state's parks, and the state's I Love NY mobile application and website.
Cuomo's administration spent $8.1 million on the signage despite knowing the FHWA considered the signs illegal. The state used emergency contracts and paid overtime in order to get the signage up before the July 4 holiday last year, while one contractor used an out-of-state sign printer to meet the state's deadline.
State transportation officials, meanwhile, have never publicly committed to taking down the signs, though there have been many private meetings and conversations between the state and FHWA on the issue.
A letter from the FHWA to the state DOT appears to run contrary to Morrissey's claim that New York has never been "directed to take any signs down."
On April 8, 2014, FHWA Team Leader Randy Warden wrote to the state DOT about the signs, warning the state that the signage doesn't comply with federal rules and state law.
He gave the state 90 days to craft a plan to take them down.
"We are requesting your office provide the FHWA New York Division Office with an explanation for the authority for what we view as noncompliant signs and with a plan of action that details how the State will remove signs that are not in compliance with the (federal rules) and an assurance that noncompliant signs will not be erected in the future," Warden wrote then.
The state never provided such a plan, instead writing back to Warden to tout the state's tourism industry -- which the signs promote -- and contend the signs aren't subject to federal rules for traffic-control devices.
"The sign designs and spacing seek to impress simple but memorable information for later recall without posing a distraction," Todd Westhuis, then the DOT's acting director of traffic safety and mobility, wrote in a May 2014 response.
Should the federal government take action against the state, highway funding could be at risk.
The state receives more than $1.5 billion in federal highway funding each year. But federal law requires states that receive such funding to following the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which the FHWA says the "I Love NY" signs clearly violate.
The FHWA could decided to withhold federal funding to the state as a result, though any penalty would likely be capped at 10 percent of the state's total amount.