CARY — email@example.com
You know how frustrating it is when you cant charge your iPhone because Apple insists on using special plugs and parts?
Thats kind of how the town of Cary feels and the bills steeper than anything Apple ever charged.
The town and the federal government paid a combined $700,000 in 2006 for a network of electronic signs produced by Mark IV, a company based in New York. Seven years on, eight of the twelve signs have malfunctioned, the manufacturer has ceased production, and the market for replacement parts has gone through the roof.
And because the signs arent designed to play nice with generic parts, town staff say theyd have to pay up to $1.1 million to replace the signs, which display messages from the towns interconnected traffic system.
Unwilling to foot that bill, Cary is saying goodbye to its experiment in electronic billboards, as decided by a Town Council vote this month. The signs will go offline April 1, with removal of most or all to follow.
A repair isnt possible because there are practically no replacement parts for sale, according to engineering director Tim Bailey. The parts in question arent incredibly complicated theyre electronic circuit boards but they must be custom tailored for the signs.
You cant take an electronic circuit out of the back of your Sony TV and put it in your Samsung TV, Bailey said.
Most of the equipment failed during the summer seasons, when high temperatures fried the electronics. Early errors were covered by warranties and free spare parts, but the town ran out of luck when the manufacturer shut down production and sold off its F-P Electronics division a few years ago.
Occasionally, I still get inquiries, but I dont have anywhere to send them, said Paul Manuel, a former sales manager for F-P Electronics. They stopped producing all of the electronics that supported all of those signs.
Bailey is disappointed that the signs didnt last longer, but he said the surviving signs are approaching the expected 10-year lifespan for traffic gear anyway.
Too much common sense
Cary tries to avoid these dilemmas by working with experienced contractors, but some situations are unavoidable, Bailey said.
We have many provisions to try to protect the town, but we cant have unlimited warranties, Bailey said. And if we had very long warranties, the price would just go up and up and up.
In some cases, governments have successfully lobbied for uniformity in parts. Traffic signals, for example, now work with largely interchangeable parts.
But towns often dont have the buying power to force manufacturers to standardize niche products such as roadside displays.
When we start talking about uniformity, so we can buy their competitors products, they kind of shut the door, said Edward Sirgany, a regional engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation. Too much common sense.
The road ahead
Cary hasnt proposed a replacement for the signs, and may not try again. Increased access to traffic information through television and wireless data services has replaced some of the functionality of roadside signs, according to Bailey.
Some of the signs, however, may live on. The state transportation department wants to use the sign on U.S. 1 to notify drivers about its massive planned Beltline construction project. The department has some spares on hand, and may cannibalize other signs to keep the display running.
In the meantime, longtime critics of Carys electronic signs can claim the last word. They have long said the displays were ugly, and that they contradicted the towns ban on private pole signs.
I think that over many years the concerns that were expressed by the opponents of the signs things like lack of value, and the cost, the aesthetics, obsolescence those all seemed to come to pass, said Brent Miller, who led protests against the signs. In a nutshell, I guess I would say, Good riddance.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary