Highway Signs: Conversion to Metric Units Could Be Costly (Letter Report,
07/07/95, GAO/RCED-95-156).

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the
Federal Highway Administration's (FHwA) metric conversion plan, focusing
on the: (1) status of federal and states' efforts to convert highway
signs to metric units; and (2) possible costs involved in implementing
the conversion.

GAO found that: (1) in June 1994, FHwA announced that it was postponing
the deadline for converting highway signs until at least after 1996 and
as a result, most states have deferred their sign conversion activities;
(2) FHwA postponed the conversion because recent legislative
requirements have prohibited the use of federal-aid highway funds for
this activity, and it received negative comments regarding the costs of
the conversion; (3) since sign conversion remains a goal, FHwA is
continuing with activities to support conversion, such as converting its
manual on highway signs into English and metric units; (4) there is no
comprehensive estimate of the costs to convert highway signs to metric
units, but Alabama has determined that it would cost about $420 million
to convert the signs in state and local roads; and (5) an FHwA
contractor will be developing a comprehensive estimate, but there is
concern that little data is available to estimate sign conversions on
local roads, since inventories of local signs may not exist.

--------------------------- Indexing Terms -----------------------------

     TITLE:  Highway Signs: Conversion to Metric Units Could Be Costly
      DATE:  07/07/95
   SUBJECT:  Metric conversion
             Federal aid for highways
             Public relations
             Educational programs
             Agency missions
             Federal/state relations
             Cost analysis
             Highway planning
             Public roads or highways
IDENTIFIER:  FHwA Highway Performance Monitoring System
             National Highway System
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================================================================ COVER

Report to the Honorable
John J.  Duncan, Jr.,
House of Representatives

July 1995



Metric Sign Conversion

=============================================================== ABBREV

  FHWA -
  AASHT0 -
  DOT -
  NHS -

=============================================================== LETTER


July 7, 1995

The Honorable John J.  Duncan, Jr.
House of Representatives

Dear Mr.  Duncan: 

The Metric Conversion Act, as amended, requires every federal agency
to use the metric system in its procurement, grants, and other
business-related activities to the extent economically feasible. 
Responding to the act, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
developed a metric conversion plan and timetable, which included the
conversion to metric units of highway signs, such as, speed limit,
distance, and clearance, on all of the nation's roads by September
30, 1996.  In response to your request, we have (1) determined the
status of federal and states' efforts to convert highway signs to
metric units and (2) examined the possible costs involved in
implementing the conversion. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :1

On June 27, 1994, FHWA notified the public through a Federal Register
notice that the agency had postponed the September 30, 1996, deadline
for converting highway signs to metric units until at least after
1996.  As a result, most states have deferred their sign conversion
activities.  FHWA officials told us that converting the signs is
still an agency goal but that postponement was necessary for two
reasons:  recent legislative requirements that prohibited the use of
federal-aid highway funds for this activity and negative comments
received on FHWA's August 31, 1993, Federal Register notice that
requested comments on sign conversion.  The comments emphasized the
high cost of converting highway signs and raised concerns about how
conversion would be financed.  Since sign conversion is still a goal,
FHWA is continuing with activities to support conversion, such as
converting its manual on highway signs into dual units--English and

No comprehensive national estimate of the costs to convert U.S. 
highway signs to metric units has been developed, and most states
have not developed anything beyond very preliminary estimates.  One
exception, Alabama, developed an average conversion cost of about $70
per sign in February 1995.  If Alabama's estimate is accurate, the
cost of converting the approximately 6 million signs on the nation's
state and local roads could amount to about $420 million.\1 This
estimate is very soft, however, because, among other things, FHWA's
estimate of the number of signs is a "guesstimate." FHWA has tasked
its contractor--Battelle--with developing a more comprehensive,
data-driven estimate for various conversion options by January 1996
so that FHWA will have a basis to choose which option to implement. 
However, there is concern that little data may be available to
estimate sign conversions on local roads because inventories of local
signs may not exist.  Moreover, Battelle will not be including the
costs for educating the public about the metric system before the
highway signs are converted, which is critical to a safe conversion. 

\1 FHWA was not able to break down the 6 million signs in terms of
highway signs and milepost markers.  Therefore, our estimate of $420
million does not factor in Alabama's estimate of $90 each to replace
milepost markers with kilometer posts. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :2

Section 5164 of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988
amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and designated the metric
system as the preferred system of weights and measurements for U.S. 
trade and commerce.  The major reasons given for converting to metric
are international trade competitiveness and ease of use.  Since the
United States is part of a global economy, the metrication of its
manufacturing sector is viewed as an important factor in remaining
competitive in world markets.  Critics argue that although
manufacturing may convert, there seems to be no compelling reason for
converting highway signs.  The American Association of State Highway
and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has stated that it is difficult
to determine that metrication would yield any substantial benefits to
the highway industry.  Others argue that the metric system is simpler
and, once learned, more efficient than English measurement. 

Section 5164 establishes a policy that requires each federal agency
to use the metric system in its procurements, grants, and other
business-related activities to the extent economically feasible by
the end of 1992.  However, conversion may not be required if it is
impractical or if it is likely to cause significant inefficiencies,
or loss of markets to U.S.  firms.  The act requires each federal
agency to establish guidelines to carry out the policy.  In addition,
Executive Order No.  12770, signed in July 1991, requires, among
other things, that executive branch departments and agencies
formulate a metric transition plan by November 30, 1991.\2

The Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its metric conversion
plan in 1990 and established policy and administrative procedures for
changing to the metric system.  DOT required each of its nine
agencies to develop a conversion plan and include specific dates for
the changeover to metric.  In addition, DOT's policy guidance
requires that if an agency identifies an area in which metric
conversion is deemed to be impractical or inefficient, it can make an
exception to the law if the exception is supported by an analysis
justifying such action.\3 Any requested exception is submitted to the
Secretary of Transportation for coordination with the other DOT
agencies before approval is given.  To date, FHWA has not analyzed
any aspects of its proposed metric conversion plan, including
converting signs to metric units, to determine if an exception was
warranted.  Only one of DOT's modal agencies--the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) has--requested program exceptions to metric

\2 Metric Conversion:  Future Progress Depends Upon Private Sector
and Public Support (GAO/RCED-94-23, Jan.  13, 1994).  This report
provides information on federal agencies' implementation of metric

\3 DOT's metric planning guidelines states that where exclusions are
claimed, they should be based on quantitative information and contain
suitable analytical procedures for determining their practicality or
significant inefficiencies.  However, there was no further definition
of practicality or inefficiency. 

\4 In a memo to the Department of Commerce, the Secretary of
Transportation noted that FAA programs relating to air traffic
control, aircraft certification, and air safety regulations represent
exceptions to DOT's plans for conversion to the metric system because
by international agreements these systems use nonmetric measures. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :2.1

FHWA established a metric work group in December 1990 to develop a
conversion plan and timetable.  The work group proposed a 5-year
transition plan with complete metric conversion by September 30,
1996.  After this date, all construction contracts advertised for
bids for federal lands, highways, and federal-aid construction would
have to contain only metric measurements.  As a result, highway and
bridge contractors, engineers, equipment and materials manufacturers
and suppliers, and state and local governments will have to perform
their work in metric units or will be ineligible for federal dollars
for highway construction projects.\5

Target dates were set for several key program elements and
activities, including converting highway signs, as shown in table 1. 
By the end of 1995, full conversion is expected for data collection
and reporting systems such as the Highway Performance Monitoring
System, which collects state-level data on the condition and
performance of highways.  Furthermore, 39 state departments of
transportation will have converted, to metric units, their manuals
and procedures that guide highway construction and maintenance. 
According to FHWA, most state DOTs will meet FHWA's target dates for
most elements of metric conversion. 

                           Table 1
              FHWA's Metric Transition Timetable

Program elements/activities       date        Status
--------------------------------  ----------  --------------
Develop FHWA's metric conversion              Approved 10-
plan                                          31-91

Initiate revision of pertinent                Ongoing
laws and regulations that serve
as barriers to metric conversion

Conversion of FHWA's manuals,     1994        Ongoing
documents, and publications

Convert FHWA's data collection    1995        Ongoing
and reporting

Newly authorized Federal Lands    9-30-96     Ongoing
Highway and Federal-aid
construction contracts in metric
units only

Standards for highway signs       9-30-96\    Postponed
                                              until sometime
                                              after 1996
Source:  FHWA. 

\5 FHWA has issued guidance on the granting of exceptions to metric
conversion for construction contracts advertised for bids after
September 30, 1996.  Basically, state exceptions will be granted only
to states that have demonstrated a conscientious effort to convert
and are committed to the full use of the metric system.  State
exceptions will be granted on a project-by-project basis. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :3

Although FHWA was moving forward on other aspects of converting its
highway program to metric, on June 27, 1994, it issued a Federal
Register notice apprising the public that the agency had postponed
the September 30, 1996, deadline for highway sign conversion until at
least after 1996.  FHWA officials said that they would establish
revised implementation requirements sometime after 1996 and that sign
conversion is still an agency goal.  The officials said that
postponement was necessary because of recent legislative prohibitions
on the use of federal-aid highway funds for this activity and because
of negative comments received on FHWA's August 31, 1993, Federal
Register notice. 

During the last 2 fiscal years, the Congress included provisions in
DOT's appropriations bills that prohibited the use of federal-aid
funds for placing metric signs on our nation's roads.  Concerns about
the cost of conversion have also led to several other legislative
actions.  For example, the bill to designate the National Highway
System (NHS) introduced in the Senate in February 1995 prohibits DOT
from requiring states to convert highway signs to metric.\6 In the
last session of the Congress, the House passed an NHS bill that
included a similar provision.  While an NHS bill has not been
introduced in the House in this session, HR 1173 has been introduced
to prohibit the expenditure of federal funds for constructing or
modifying highway signs that are expressed only in metric units.  At
least one state--Virginia--also passed a law in 1994 that prohibits
the use of state funds for converting highway signs to metric units. 

Negative responses to FHWA's August 1993 notice also contributed to
the agency's postponement of the metric signage requirement. 
Overall, about 85 percent of the respondents (2,288 out of 2,731)
were opposed to converting English measurement signs to metric units. 
Most respondents cited the cost involved in converting, and a
majority said that the funds could be better used to repair roads and
bridges.  Several local officials commented that the conversion was
another federal mandate without thought of how it would be locally
financed.  Furthermore, several states that responded requested
special funding and an education/public information program before
implementing metric signage. 

Most states have not taken any action to convert their signs to
metric units.  However, Alabama and Arizona are planning for full
conversion of highway signs to metric units.  In addition to changing
highway signs, such as speed limit and direction signs, to metric
units, the Alabama DOT's strategy includes changing milepost markers
to kilometer posts.  The state DOT has recently received approval
from FHWA to use federal-aid funds to install kilometer posts as a
reference system to be used for the collection of highway data.\7
Since this is a reference system and will not replace the milepost
markers, FHWA determined that the use of federal-aid funds for the
reference system would not violate the prohibition in the fiscal year
1995 appropriations act. 

Although FHWA has postponed the requirement for states to convert
their highway signs to metric units, it continues to be an agency
goal.  As such, activities that support sign conversion continue. 
For example, FHWA is currently converting the Manual on Uniform
Traffic Control Devices into dual units--English and metric.  This
manual provides federal guidance to the states on all aspects of road

\6 The NHS, as established in the Intermodal Surface Transportation
Efficiency Act of 1991, is to include a network of federal-aid roads
of national significance totaling approximately 155,000 miles.  The
Congress must approve the final NHS network by September 30, 1995. 

\7 FHWA requires that certain reports and reporting processes be in
metric units beginning with fiscal year 1995.  The data and
information needed to meet the reporting processes are often obtained
from field surveys, inventories, and permits.  The customary milepost
is used to document and locate much of this work.  According to FHWA
officials, states would gather the data in English units and
mathematically convert the data to metric units. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :3.1

FHWA detailed three options for converting highway signs in an August
31, 1993, Federal Register notice to obtain public comment. 

  Option 1:  Replace highway signs through routine maintenance over 4
     to 7 years.  Some signs would be in metric and some in English
     until all signs were replaced. 

  Option 2:  Convert all highway signs over a 6-month to 1-year
     period.  Priority roads would be converted quickly while other
     roads would be phased in over a longer period of time. 

  Option 3:  Carry out a two-phase transition with dual metric and
     English measurement signs posted by October 1996 and move to
     metric-only signs at some time in the future. 

Although most respondents opposed conversion, about 15 percent voted
for one of DOT's three options for sign conversion.  About 70 percent
of the 443 respondents supported option 2, about 27 percent supported
option 3, and the remaining 3 percent supported option 1.  If FHWA
requires conversion and federal funds are available, AASHTO's
position is that at least a 2-year lead time is needed to plan the
highway sign conversion.  After the 2-year lead time, AASHTO proposes
that FHWA select a 6-month period for the quick conversion of all
highway signs and milepost markers, which is similar to option 2. 
Furthermore, AASHTO's proposal would require that, during this
6-month period, all signs containing English units (distances, speed
limits, clearances, weights, etc.) be modified to equivalent metric

An official of the American Trucking Association--a lobbying
organization for the trucking industry--told us that while it does
not have an official position on highway sign conversion, there are
safety considerations associated with the conversion options.  For
example, if all signs are not converted during the same time period,
as AASHTO suggests, drivers might be confused when they see a speed
limit sign in metric units, then one in English units.  FHWA
officials told us that, in implementing sign conversion, they hope to
minimize the driving public's confusion and safety concerns by
suggesting ways that states can call attention to the new metric
signs.  While no guidelines have been completed, FHWA officials said
that one approach they are considering is to put metric units in
yellow to differentiate them from the English unit signs drivers are
used to.  For any option, the American Trucking Association official
told us that without a nationwide educational process before the
conversion occurs, commercial truck drivers and the general driving
public may not be familiar with metric units.  This lack of education
could result in safety concerns related to speed and also clearance
heights on bridges and tunnels. 

Alabama has begun to convert its highway signs.  In a manner similar
to FHWA's option 1, Alabama is replacing highway signs with metric
signs through routine maintenance and for other reasons such as
construction.  However, Alabama plans, unlike option 1, to put an
English measure overlay on the signs.\8 Under this approach, the
state believes that it will save money because the signs need to be
replaced anyway, and since signs and overlays are fabricated in the
state's shop, all the overlays could be made now and would not be
affected by the cost of future inflation.  Moreover, unlike FHWA's
option 1, this approach would also allow for the signs to be changed
to metric concurrently over the same short period as overlays are
removed or metric unit overlays are added for those English-unit
signs that had not been replaced during maintenance. 

One open question concerning Alabama's approach is whether the state
will remove the overlays and convert to metric if FHWA decides not to
require conversion.  From a safety standpoint, it may not be prudent
for one state to convert and the surrounding states to keep their
signs in English units.  FHWA officials said that they had not
decided on a course of action if conversion were not mandatory and
some states converted and others did not. 

\8 Because Alabama's metric signs will have overlays in English
units, the driving public will not be using metric speed limits,
distances, or other measurements. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :4

FHWA has not estimated the nationwide costs of highway sign
conversions.  However, on the basis of Canada's experience in metric
sign conversion as well as the work done to date by Alabama,
"ballpark" estimates of about $334 million and $420 million can be
calculated.  In 1977, the Canadian Ministries changed about 241,000
signs (using overlays) on 300,000 miles of highway, which is about
the number of highway miles in California and Texas.  The conversion
took 2 months and cost about $13.4 million in 1995 U.S.  dollars, or
$55.70 per sign ($6.1 million or $25.43 per sign in 1977 Canadian
dollars).  The number of Canadian signs is a fraction of FHWA's
estimate that about 6 million signs on the nation's state and local
roads would need to be changed.  Using Canada's cost data, the United
States conversion could cost about $334 million.  However, this
estimate could vary depending on the length of implementation and the
replacement method chosen. 

In 1993, AASHTO issued its "Guide to Metric Conversion." The guide
included a case study on Alabama that used information on the number
and types of signs from one area of the state to develop conversion
cost estimates.\9

Initially, Alabama estimated that it would cost $2.7 million to
convert its state highway signs, using the quick-conversion option,
to metric units by October 1995.  After the initial estimate, Alabama
increased its estimate to $3.8 million (at about $70 per sign), to
include an additional $1.1 million to install kilometer markers for
data collection purposes.\10 Assuming that nationwide conversion
costs would be similar to Alabama's, changing the nation's 6 million
highway signs on state and local roads could cost about $420 million. 
We termed this a ballpark estimate because there are a number of
factors that could affect the estimate.  For example, the validity of
FHWA's estimate of 6 million signs, as well as the mix of
signs--large ones, small ones, or milepost markers--could be
important in determining costs. 

Eight of the nine states that we contacted provided very preliminary
cost estimates, ranging from a low of $1 million to a high of $20
million, for changing their highway signs on state roads.\11 The
difference in estimates depends on the method and number of signs for
conversion.  Because FHWA postponed the conversion, FHWA officials
told us that most states have not developed cost estimates.  Many
states do not have information on the number of signs that they would
need to change on local roads or the costs involved.  Several state
officials noted in the 1993 Federal Register notice that since there
are many more miles on local roads than state roads, the sign
conversion costs could be quite substantial.  According to an FHWA
official, about 70 percent (or 2.7 million) of the nation's 3.9
million miles of public roads are classified as local roads. 

In January 1995, FHWA hired a contractor--Battelle--to develop
national cost estimates for each of the three conversion options (and
variations of those options) spelled out in the August 31, 1993,
notice.  To develop national cost estimates, Battelle plans to use
information from state and local jurisdictions that have computerized
sign inventories.  According to an FHWA official, obtaining
information at the local level may be difficult because local road
sign inventories may not be maintained.  If local inventories are not
available, Battelle may have to rely on other methodologies, such as
statistical sampling techniques, to provide a basis for estimating
costs of changing local road signs to metric.  The study is just
getting started and is scheduled for completion in January 1996. 

\9 Alabama's DOT used information collected from one region of the
state on the number and types of signs that need to be converted and
extrapolated the numbers for the entire state.  The state DOT's field
inventory found that 1 out of every 12 signs would need to be changed
into metric units on state roads, at an average cost of $70 per sign. 
Some signs, such as warning, parking, and regulatory signs, would not
have to be changed. 

\10 This estimate does not include the cost of converting highway
signs on local roads. 

\11 The states that we contacted were Alabama, Colorado, Florida,
Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. 
According to FHWA, these states were the furthest along with metric
signage.  One state--Georgia--had not formulated any estimate for
sign conversion. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :4.1

State and local officials, AASHTO, and an American Trucking
Association official all said that an important component to highway
sign conversion is public education.  Without a more comprehensive
national conversion effort that would seek to educate all parts of
our society on the metric system, FHWA and state DOTs might have to
establish and fund an education program before signs are converted. 

According to AASHTO's 1993 "Guide to Metric Conversion," careful
planning and a public information campaign are largely credited for
Canada's smooth transition to metric units.  The public had been
prepared for the conversion through displays of the new signs,
full-page newspaper advertisements, radio and TV spots, and
informational pamphlets.  Moreover, since highway sign conversion was
just one part of Canada's overall effort to convert the country to
the metric system, the program began with several years of close
cooperation and careful planning among government agencies. 

AASHTO's 1993 guide also states that while public information
programs are essential to conversion, a large part of educating the
public can be handled better by means other than those at the
immediate disposal of the highway agency.  The guide points out that
the Secretary of Commerce has been given the lead to establish a
metric education program, and AASHTO believes that the Subcommittee
on Public Education and Awareness, established by the Secretary of
Commerce, is a "very appropriate mechanism for conducting a national
awareness campaign."

However, our January 1994 report on federal metric conversion
activities raises questions about the limited actions that have been
taken at the federal level to foster metric education.  Furthermore,
the report points out that the federal government by itself cannot
achieve the goal of metric conversion.  The government must depend
upon support from its private sector suppliers and from the public;
therefore, a national dialogue is critical to defining the next steps
in decision-making about a national metric conversion effort. 

If the federal government, under the leadership of the Department of
Commerce, does not actively lead a nationwide conversion education
effort, FHWA and state DOTs would be taking the lead in educating the
public on the metric system.  While FHWA is planning for public
awareness and education as part of the sign conversion process, being
the lead agency for public awareness out of necessity, rather than
being part of an overall national conversion education effort, is a
very different matter.  However, unless FHWA and the state DOTs take
the lead, it will be difficult for the driving public to become
educated or, at a minimum, aware of the differences between metric
and English highway signs.  However, FHWA has not required Battelle
to determine the cost of educating the driving public under each

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :5

The Congress designated the metric system as the preferred
measurement system in 1988; however, it passed appropriations
legislation in 1994 and 1995 that prohibited federal funding of
converting highway signs to metric units.  As a result, FHWA has
postponed requiring states to implement the conversion.  The majority
of comments on FHWA's conversion options opposed conversion because
of the costs.  While implementation is on hold, FHWA has an
opportunity to revisit the safety and cost implications of highway
sign conversion to metric units.  Battelle's cost study could provide
the information needed for such an assessment. 

Canada's experience and Alabama's estimate provide the basis for
developing ballpark national estimates to convert highway signs on
state and local roads of $334 million and $420 million, respectively. 
FHWA has tasked Battelle with developing a more comprehensive,
data-driven estimate for various conversion options.  However, there
is concern that little data may be available to estimate the cost of
converting signs on local roads.  Moreover, it is unclear who is
responsible for metric education and how it will be paid for. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :6

To help to ensure that the Federal Highway Administration has
sufficient information to analyze the implications of the metric
conversion of highway signs, we recommend that the Secretary of
Transportation direct the Administrator, Federal Highway
Administration, to expand the national cost estimate study to include
the potential costs of educating the public about converting highway
signs to metric units. 

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :7

We met with the Chiefs of the Contract Administration and Technical
Development Branches, FHWA, and the Assistant for Energy Policy from
the Office of the Secretary to obtain their views on a draft of this
report.  FHWA disagreed with our proposed recommendation that it
expand Battelle's cost estimate study to include potential education
costs for sign conversion.  FHWA said that it intends to play a role
in metric education and that the states could use the material that
it develops or build on those materials with an educational plan of
their own.  Since it is uncertain how education will be handled or
how much it will cost nationwide, we continue to believe that
developing such an estimate will help to ensure that the cost
estimates developed by Battelle will include all potential costs of

------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :8

To evaluate the status and costs of converting the nation's highway
signs to metric units, we interviewed responsible officials from
FHWA, Ontario's Ministry of Transportation, the Transportation
Association of Canada, the Transportation Research Board, and AASHTO. 
We also discussed highway sign conversion and its cost with officials
from nine state highway departments--Alabama, Colorado, Florida,
Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. 
These states were identified by FHWA as being the furthest along with
metric signage and could provide a range of cost estimates for
converting highway signs to metric units. 

We also reviewed the laws and regulations pertinent to metric
signage, such as the Metric Conversion Act, as amended; FHWA's Metric
Conversion plan; Federal Register notices; and DOT's appropriations
bills for fiscal years 1994 and 1995.  We conducted our review
between October 1994 and April 1995 in accordance with generally
accepted government auditing standards. 

---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :8.1

As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 7 days
after the date of this letter.  At that time, we will send copies to
interested congressional committees; the Secretary of Transportation;
the Administrator, Federal Highway Administration; and the Director,
Office of Management and Budget.  We will also make copies available
to others upon request. 

If you have any questions concerning this report, I can be reached at
(202) 512-2834.  Major contributors to this report are listed in
appendix I. 

Sincerely yours,

Kenneth M.  Mead
Director, Transportation Issues

=========================================================== Appendix I

--------------------------------------------------------- Appendix I:1

Gary L.  Jones
Susan A.  Fleming
Katherine Chenault