ALBANY -- New York paid about $8.1 million to print and install "I Love NY" highway signs across the state, despite being warned they violate federal law.
The state Department of Transportation and Thruway Authority spent about $3.6 million for materials and $4.5 million to install the large, blue signs, which now dot roadways across the state and are at the center of an ongoing feud with the federal government.
The cost was significantly more than the DOT said in November, when it estimated the state spent $1.76 million on materials.
The new figures were provided by Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll and Bill Finch, the Thruway's acting executive director, who testified Wednesday at a state budget hearing.
"The difference is that $1.7 (million) number was a point in time," Driscoll told reporters after testifying at a state budget hearing. When the total costs were tallied, the DOT's share of materials was $3.1 million, he said.
In all, 514 signs were installed statewide -- meaning the state spent an average of more than $15,000 per sign for materials and installation costs.
The signs, which have been touted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are generally grouped in five and placed in rapid succession along the road's right-of-way. They promote various state tourism programs, with all promoting the state's I Love NY app.
They have been at the center of a behind-the-scenes dispute with the Federal Highway Administration for more than three years, with the administration saying they are distracting to drivers and violate both state and federal law, which have strict rules on what can and cannot go on highway signs.
The state began installing them in 2014 and quickly expanded them last year -- despite a 2013 federal order rejecting the state's request to put them up.
The dispute could threaten a portion of the more than $1 billion in federal highway funding sent to New York each year, which the Federal Highway Administration can withhold if the state doesn't comply.
State lawmakers repeatedly asked Driscoll about the signs Wednesday, quizzing him on the costs and whether the way the signs are grouped together distracts drivers.
“Commissioner, we’ve spent lot of time in terms of public safety, distracted driving," said Assembly Transportation Chairman David Gantt, D-Rochester. "Those signs are very distracting."
Driscoll responded: “We don’t believe they’re distracting. We believe they’re informational."
The DOT has previously declined to detail the total costs of the signs, sticking to its $1.76 million estimate -- which did not include installation costs -- until Wednesday.
Contracting documents obtained by the USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau last month showed the DOT paid a contractor more than $300,000 to print and install 21 I Love NY signs in the Rochester region.
At more than $14,000 a sign, the Rochester-area costs were in line with the statewide figures unveiled Wednesday.
The signage dispute has worked its way up to high levels in Washington, with Driscoll traveling there in December to discuss the dispute with then-Federal Highway Administrator Greg Nadeau.
Since then, talks have continued between the two sides, with federal officials pushing for the signs to come down.
Finch and Driscoll touted the state's efforts to boost its tourism programs.
Driscoll pointed to state data showing a spike in the number of people who downloaded the I Love NY app after the signage was dramatically expanded late last June.
The app was downloaded an average of 2,317 times a month over the first half of 2016, according to data from Empire State Development. Over the second half, the number jumped to an average of 7,314 a month.
Finch said the Thruway Authority is proud to "help with such a statewide effort" to promote tourism.
"We were very excited to participate," Finch said.
© 2017 WGRZ-TV