Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
Imagine Valdosta without signs. No street signs, stop signs or school zone signs. You probably rarely think about it, but a city without signs is a city without order. That is why Signs and Markings within the Traffic Division of the City of Valdosta's Engineering Department is so important because without them, cars don't stop, pedestrians don't cross and streets are just unnamed slabs of pavement.
Believe it or not, all of the signs and markings in Valdosta are created and maintained by just three people: supervisor Larry Ogden and sign techs Jamie Byrd and Dana Fudge.
“We fabricate the signs and install them,” said Ogden who has been with the city for 15 years. “We are also responsible for pavement markings.”
Ogden and his team make all of the city's signs in a small room in-house and it's not a machine that makes the signs for them. They piece by piece, from the design to the construction, do everything by hand.
It all starts with a computer program called FlexiSign. To be efficient, Ogden had Byrd and Fudge pre-create every sign in the city to store in the program which is upward of 400 total and took threea weeks..
“All the signs are put in by category,” said Ogden.
Each sign is assigned a number, so if you needed to make a “Bump” sign, you would go to the folder category of “Warning Signs” and look for number W8-1.
Once you find the sign you need, you select the size. Size of a sign is incredibly important and is even regulated by the federal government.
“They send out guidelines we must follow,” said Ogden.
Per government guidelines, the city of Valdosta just recently upgraded all of the city’s signage from a height of six inches to a height of nine inches.
“It gives better visibility for the public,” said Ogden.
This is because when a sign was at a height of six inches, the letters on the sign were only four inches tall. Now that the signs are nine inches, the letters are bigger and more visible at six inches tall.
Changes that come from the federal government vary.
“Some years we have no changes and other years we change a lot,” said Ogden.
Recently, because of the recession, the government has suspended a lot of upgrades due to financial reasons.
“Most cities cannot keep up with all the changes,” said Ogden.
However, due to Ogden’s consistency and organization with things such as having signs pre-made in the computer system, Valdosta’s Signs and Markings
Department is always ready to handle any request.
When Ogden’s men go in and find the sign they need in the system, they then send it to the Graphtec Cutting Pro machine simply called, “the cutter.”
The cutter is loaded with a role of EC Transparent Overlay Film that it cuts the design out of. The film comes in all the standard traffic sign colors such as blue for handicap signs, orange for construction signs and more.
The cutter, using a small razor, cuts out the letters and designs into the piece of EC Film.
The film is then taken to a table where, with a small razor, all of the material that is not needed is weeded out of the sign. For example, in cutting a "Do Not Enter" sign, the letters are cut into red film. Because the letters are white and only the background is red, the letters have to be peeled off in order to reveal the white background.
The backing for the sign also has to be cut. So for the "Do Not Enter" sign, a square of white is cut and the red design is then placed on top of it.
Next, transfer tape is put on top of the sign cut to keep it together as it is transferred onto the "blank" or a piece of metal that serves as the backing for every sign.
The blank, with the cut on top, is placed in the roller which apples pressure of about 100 pounds per square inch to increase the bond of the cut onto the blank. The roller is operated by a person cranking the handle.
"It's like a small assembly line," said Ogden.
The process to make a sign is very tedious and though Ogden, Byrd and Fudge can now make some signs in as little as ten minutes, they have to get everything exactly right, every time.
"With signs and markings, you have to be consistent," said Ogden.
A speed limit sign on Baytree Rd. has to look exactly like a speed limit sign on Bemiss Rd. A deer crossing sign in Valdosta needs to look exactly like the deer crossing sign in Moultrie. Every sign and its design must be immediately recognizable because the information it communicates to a driver or a pedestrian can be life saving. A sign being where it is supposed to be is also crucial.
"A missing stop sign is a potential of a fatality," said Ogden.
After making a sign, Ogden and his crew must install them. Sometimes they are required to hang completely new signs but most of their job consists of maintaining the signs that are already hanging in the city. While some signs are replaced because they are "dead", which is when a sign's material lacks reflectivity, others are replaced because they are stolen.
"The most stolen signs are Mary, Jane, Hump, Justin and High," said Ogden. "College kids will steal the signs and put them on their wall."
The Titletown signs are also among those popular to steal.
"We stopped making those because we could put one up today and it's gone tomorrow," said Ogden. "They keep getting stolen and the cost is just unbearable."
Those signs are a bit of a sore spot for Ogden not just because they each cost more than $200, but because of the work he had to put into its creation.
When Valdosta was named Titletown USA by ESPN, Ogden was just a sign tech. Valdosta city manager Larry Hanson called and put in an order for the sign. Instead of the usual deadline of a few days or weeks, Ogden had to produce the sign in just a few hours so that it could be presented on television.
"Needless to say, tension was kind of high," said Ogden.
Ogden received the call at 10:30 a.m. and by 1 p.m. that same day, the sign had been created and delivered.
"That was the fastest sign I've ever made!" said Ogden.
Signs like the Titletown, the city seal and the "Buckle Up It's the Law" are not like generic speed signs. They initially were not ready made in the system and had to be created from scratch.
"The city seal took me a week," said Ogden.
Ogden has been in the sign business for so long that he can drive anywhere in the city and when he sees one sign, he can tell you what next two signs should follow. It's a special talent, that despite being largely unrecognized by the public, keeps the city, its citizens and visitors in absolute order.