Johnston says about 50-60 signs a month are vandalized with paint or flat out stolen from the side of the roads in Fairfield County. Cost of repair and replacement of these signs can run to tens of thousands of dollars a year.
The problem in the county is so pervasive, that the SCDOT has been working with the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office to combat this increasing rash of sign theft and defacement.
But catching sign thieves is a tricky operation.
“With the help of law enforcement, we’ve been in the communities asking if anyone has noticed anyone painting or stealing signs, and we have had no luck whatsoever. I think people just naturally want to stay out of those kinds of issues,” Johnston said.
Some of the painting on the signs are gang-symbols, and Johnston believes potential witnesses to sign vandalism might be intimidated and not wanting to get in the middle of something dealing with gangs.
Signs that get stolen can end up at the local recyclers, sold for the aluminum the signs are made of, Johnston said.
A complication to being able to control the flow of any signs that have been cut up and sold for scrap is, most of the recyclers are in Richland County.
Johnston said law enforcement plans to talk to the recyclers and tell them to be on the lookout for scrap aluminum blanks that might be stolen and cut-up road signs, similar to the way recyclers a few years ago helped stop thieves from selling them stolen copper.
He said the SCDOT and law enforcement have heard secondhand that recycler sometimes get cut down aluminum blanks that have the faces burned off that might not be distinguishable as road signs.
“One saving grace is, the signs that are painted and vandalized, we can reclaim them. We send them off and they are refaced, so they’re not a total loss. The signs that are stolen, they’re gone forever,” he said.
The extra cost of replacing these signs, about $20,000 a year, comes from the taxpayers, Johnston said.
One of the prime targets for theft is the new S.C. 200 route marker signs.
To combat the theft of signs, the SCDOT has tried different kinds of bolts and other measures, but Johnston says, “no matter what you do, thieves always seem to find a way to take the signs.”
Signs aren’t just stolen, they’re also vandalized. Recently, a lot of the signs have been painted with gang symbols, Johnston said.
“My interpretation is many of the are gang signs. In talking with law enforcement, they think that many of these symbols painted are done by copycats. Some may be territory markers, telling other gang members to stay out of the territory,” Johnston said.
Signs inside the Town limits and even out in the county have been vandalized and stolen. There seems to be no areas that might not have signs vandalized or stolen.
Painting or stealing a sign, with is defined by state law as ‘negligent, willful or wanton damage to highways’ can lead to a fine of up to $100, imprisonment for 30 days, plus the cost of the damage.
Johnston said the SCDOT needs the help of citizens to keep an eye out for people vandalizing or stealing signs.
“We won’t have a chance to stop this activity, without the help of the folks that end up footing the bill for the damage,” Johnston said.
But it’s not the money issues that Johnston is primarily concerned about; there are other potential costs involved: the cost of lives.
“The safety issue are a big concern for me; thieves don’t just steal tractor crossing signs, for example. They’ll take stop signs, stop ahead signs, yield signs-safety signs that were a person not familiar with the area, the loss of those signs could easily result in someone getting killed. That scares me as much as anything.
“This is a serious problem, especially in our county-our roads are up and down and have a lot of curves. Those signs are up for a reason.”
Johnston believes that the wannabee gang members who paint symbols on the signs, or those people who are stealing the signs, don’t realize their actions could cost a life, maybe the life of someone near and dear to them.
A word from the foreman
Want to know what it costs to replace a sign? Ask SCDOT sign foreman Ronnie Armstrong:
“Replacing a road sign takes an entire day. using two trucks and three men. We spend three weeks out of month replacing signs that are stolen or vandalized. We spend as much time replacing signs as we do our routine maintenance.”