ALBANY - The nation's top highway regulator said his agency is working with New York to create a pilot program for the I Love NY highway signs dotting the state's roadways, which the federal government has long said are illegal.
Walter "Butch" Waidelich, the Federal Highway Administration's acting deputy administrator, testified Tuesday at a congressional hearing on the implementation of a 2015 highway infrastructure law.
But Waidelich was asked by Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, Columbia County, about the status of the years-long dispute between the federal government and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration over the 514 I Love NY signs spread throughout New York.
The state spent more than $8 million installing the signs, despite a 2013 federal ruling explicitly prohibiting it from doing so.
Waidelich, currently the top-ranking administrator at the agency, said he was "familiar with the issue on signs in New York."
He gave no indication of what a pilot program for the signs may look like or whether some of the already installed signs would have to come down.
"Currently, we’re actually working with New York to see if there’s a way we can develop a pilot with those particular signs," he said.
The state Department of Transportation and Thruway Authority began installing an early version of the "I Love NY signs" in 2014, touting the state's various tourism and agriculture programs.
They dramatically expanded the signage in 2016, installing them in a series of five signs in rapid succession along the state's major highways, near airports and on other state roads.
The state used emergency contracts and paid contractors overtime to get the signs up before July 4, while one contractor used an out-of-state sign printer to meet the state's deadline.
The state's decision to install the signs could ultimately cost it millions: The federal government can withhold funding from the state since the signs violate highway regulations and law, according to the federal highway regulators.
Negotiations between the state and federal regulators, meanwhile, have been slow-moving.
The two sides met in Washington D.C. late last year to try and resolve the issue after the USA Today Network's Albany Bureau reported on the previously behind-the-scenes dispute. Following the meeting, federal highway regulators expected a proposal from the state in early April.
By May 8, the proposal had not been submitted, leaving the Federal Highway Administration's top New York official to pen a letter urging the state to "expedite the delivery of their proposal."
The proposal still has yet to be submitted.
"Our conversations with FHWA are ongoing," state DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said in an email Wednesday.
Faso noted the May 8 letter in his questioning Tuesday.
He asked Waidelich what kind of steps the federal government could take to force the state to comply with its rules.
“Again, we like to work with the state to bring them into compliance, but we do have the ability to withhold federal funds if it does come down to that," Waidelich said.
New York receives more than $1 billion a year in federal highway funding. Any potential penalty would likely be limited to a percentage of that total for the highways with the signage.
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