Ashley Holland’s fingerprints are imprinted across Sampson County’s 962 square miles, and those who see his work every day might not even know it. He is simply “the road sign guy.”
For the past 13 years, Holland has been an employee with Sampson County Public Works Department. Working in a small workshop within the Public Works offices off of Southeast Boulevard, and utilizing the adjacent warehouse, Holland designs and constructs each sign, placing them on green “blanks,” which are then mounted to metal posts.
There are 2,271 locations where the green, reflective 911 road signs have been erected in Sampson, whether state roads or private drives. Many of those locations have multiple signs.
“We count on Emergency Management and director Ronald Bass to let us know when one is down,” said Public Works director Lin Reynolds, a longtime Department of Transportation official who recently assumed the county’s Public Works helm with the retirement of Lee Cannady in June.
There were 180 signs down when Reynolds arrived. Working to whittle down the list, 160 new ones have been installed in the past six weeks. With new private drives added each month, and another 25 new ones pending, there are about 45 signs that still need to go up.
“We’ve made it a focus,” said Reynolds. “We’ve pulled people in from other departments, which prevents them from doing their work. Once we get manageable, he can handle it. Ashley is a one-man show.”
And it’s been that way for the 13 years Holland has worked for the county. The county has budgeted $34,000 annually to fix and replace road signs across the county and Holland is the man who makes it happen. The $34,000 includes solely materials, not Holland’s salary, the truck he uses and the gas it takes to travel Sampson’s massive land mass.
Reynolds said the county recycles salvageable signs and posts to save money, keeping them in their inventory along with metal posts and old round aluminum ones. A sign costs about $165 apiece, including $40 for the steel post and another $125 for the sign. Reynolds said an additional $100 can be tacked on for each sign to give a picture of the total cost of labor and salary expense to the county. There are roughly 205 signs installed — new and replacements — every year.
Cost is an inevitability for something that must be in place. It’s all about safety, Reynolds noted.
He pointed to the many who use Sampson’s roadways who rely on those road signs, and the potential ramifications if they weren’t there, from fire departments, law enforcement, rescue squads, Sampson Area Transportation or home health nurses from here and out of town. Some use GPS and cell phones to find their way around, but dead space in areas can tend to limit options. Even when someone is familiar with the area, at night it helps to have the sign as a guide.
“It helps to have the sign there,” said Reynolds. “We don’t want to hinder anybody that has an emergency. A couple minutes could be the difference for them, whether it’s a house fire or an emergency medical situation. It may be life or death. I didn’t realize who all it affected until I got here.”
When Emergency Management or someone from the public calls to report a sign down, Holland goes out and investigates and locates the issue. NC 811 is contacted so underground utilities can be located, which means power and gas companies have to be brought in the loop. Fiberoptic lines are also an obstacle. It can take about 48 hours to ensure utilities are not going to be hit before Holland can think about digging holes. In all, it can be a four-day process of maneuvering through red tape even if a sign is ready.
“There are a lot of possible side effects from unnecessary repairs,” said Reynolds, who termed the majority of the repairs as such.
“Vandalism makes up the biggest part of the problem,” Holland added. “Accidents make up the rest.”
Cost and time go hand in hand. If Holland is working on signs, that means the county spends more money because of the materials cost and Holland’s time when his services could be utilized in another area of Public Works to save money.
“We could be using Ashley’s services elsewhere if he wasn’t putting up so many darn signs,” noted Reynolds, adding that it could be mowing grass, painting buildings or doing another job the county contracts out. Among his other duties, Holland also does lettering for buildings and regularly stripes and puts emblems on new county vehicles, a time-consuming task that can take a day for each vehicle.
“It can be challenging,” said Holland. “This has always been a one-man job. Whenever we could pull somebody from somewhere else, we would.”
The green 911 road signs have been put up in the county since 1994, when individual letters and numbers had to be cut out and affixed to green blanks. The names of roads are 5 inches tall and state road numbers are 3 inches tall.
About 12 years ago is when the system became more streamlined, taking “a lot less time,” Holland attested.
Within his workshop, Holland takes a green blank — they range in size from 24 to 54 inches long, with lengths in 6-inch intervals in between — and then uses a computer design program to print out two of the same sign, one for each side, using a vinyl plotter. An exacto knife is utilized in the weeding process to get that engineer-grade vinyl sign ready for the green blank.
Holland eyeballs the size of green blank needed and delicately places the sign over the blank and lines it up. He evens it out and then covers it with transfer tape. A little more cleaning up follows, and it is ready. The same process follows for the other side of the same sign. The signs and posts needed are loaded up into Holland’s truck.
Once out in the field, Holland mounts the signs to the steel posts and uses rivets to bring the signs together at the ends. He digs a hole about 2 to 3 feet in the ground for the 10-foot post so the sign ultimately stands a minimum 7 feet tall.
Photos are taken of each sign and the date it is put in the ground is time-stamped and mapped. That way, any issues with signs being damaged or broken can be tracked and problem areas identified. Holland said, for the most part, the problems are spread across the county, with no particular problem hot spots.
Holland said some have taken reciprocating saws to the top of metal posts to steal signs or attempted to break the posts with heavy machinery, with mixed success. The new signs are sturdy and the rivets are much stronger than the screws the county used in the past. Whether damaged or stolen, the county is left to clean up the mess, leading to that $34,000 in materials each year.
Reynolds urged the public to assist the county in gathering materials that can be salvaged, and reporting when signs are down.
“If they want to give back the sign, we will come get it or they can drop it off, no questions asked,” Reynolds remarked, noting that taking county property is a misdemeanor offense. “There won’t be any problem, no charges. We want to put it back in our stock.”
Along with the safety aspect, Reynolds said it is all about cutting county costs.
“We try to use what we have,” Holland stated.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.