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Starts & Stops

Mass. highway signs perplex, and vex, some motorists

The cryptic sign had been up only a few hours when reader Laurie Shapiro spotted it on Route 128 during her commute from Arlington to Wellesley. “Stop forest pests,” it said, flashing on a programmable message board. “Don’t move firewood.”

Could it be a hack? Was a line missing? What did it mean?

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“Kind of strange,” Shapiro said.

That night, I saw it myself on Interstate 93. But knowing it wasn’t a one-off hardly resolved the mystery. Don’t move firewood where? The yard to the house?

Googling, I discovered dontmovefirewood.org, which warns about the microscopic pests that can hide in firewood and damage ecosystems when that wood is carted to new places. Don’t move firewood more than 10 miles, it says.

The state Department of Transportation, which regularly uses 30 to 50 of its nearly 400 programmable message boards for public service announcements, posted the warning at the request of the Department of Agriculture, said Sara Lavoie, MassDOT spokeswoman.

“We thought it was an important message, but it turns out it was quite little known, so there was definitely some curiosity,” she said.

Hoping to clear up the message for the campground-bound, the state tweaked the display to read, “Stop harmful insects/Keep firewood local.”

That clarification still left some wondering why highway signs were talking about kindling. Reader Susan Palefsky of Ashland thought they were supposed to be used for critical traffic information and missing-child Amber Alerts.

“They are now used 24/7 for pointless and distracting messages, the most recent of which is about moving firewood!” wrote Palefsky, who was bombarded with the messages while commuting daily to Westford. “I have searched and searched the DOT website for the regulations governing the use of these signs to no avail. Can you help?”

Those regulations exist in a two-page memo Lavoie provided, drafted by the old Mass­Highway in 2005 and inherited by MassDOT after its 2009 creation.

The memo draws on guidelines from the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to establish three allowable uses: real-time traffic information, such as lane closures, hazardous conditions, and emergency-related route changes; advance notice of traffic changes for construction or special events; and safety messages, limited to Amber Alerts and “driver safety campaigns.”

That last one seems to have loosened. Lavoie provided a list of 19 messages that have cycled through the signs.

Many are about highway safety (speeding, texting, drunk driving, work zones — even free coffee to stay awake at rest stops), but some are not. That includes a plug for the online branch of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and a reminder about Dig Safe, the clearinghouse to prevent damage to underground utilities, requested by the Federal Highway Administration.

“Firewood” is the second environmental message but the first to run statewide, following a regional campaign at the start of boating season (“Stop aquatic invasives/Wash your boat after each use”). In each case, the department considered the transportation component.

“We don’t want the wood to move,” said Lavoie, noting that non-transportation messages about, say, flu shots would not be approved.

To keep them fresh, the state cycles them in and out. The firewood warning ceased Friday; in many places, people now see a designated-driver message, while those approaching Boston see “Welcome class of 2016/Don’t text & drive.”

Flesh-and-blood mascot

In writing about the T’s new mascot, a three-dimensional version of the cartoon Charlie on the CharlieCard, I told the story of Old Billy, the first mascot for mass transit in Boston. Bred in Vermont, Billy pulled an omnibus — a passenger wagon, without tracks — in Boston before being acquired by the Metropolitan Railroad when it launched in 1856.

Old Billy logged 25 years and 125,000 miles without a sick day for the Metropolitan and the larger company that absorbed it, the West End Street Railway, before enjoying a decade of semiretired celebrity.

Credit for tipping me off about Old Billy goes to transit historian Bradley H. Clarke, president of the Boston Street Railway Association; I soon found paeans to Old Billy’s form, longevity, and durability on Google Books in dated publications as varied as The American Trotter, The Street Railway Journal, and Britain’s Veterinary Journal.

If not as celebrated as the horse, there have been a few other mascots of sorts over the years, according to Clarke. Sandhogs digging Boston’s first subway tunnel became enamored with a black kitten born on the job site Dec. 13, 1896, naming him Prince Subway and giving him a prominent perch on the first trip completed through the tunnel July 3, 1897 — two months before it opened to passenger service.

In the early 20th century era of the Boston Elevated Railway, the company president and general counsel were known to travel through the system joined by their dogs. And three years ago, in the spirit of Prince Subway, an MBTA trolley operator adopted a stray named Kenmore who had been spotted intermittently in Green Line tunnels for five months before being caught.

The 1891 Globe obituary for Old Billy — yes, there was one — said the “veterinary surgeons of the [street railway] company will prepare his skin for mounting by skilled taxidermists in order that an imitation of this truly remarkable animal may be preserved.” But a 1921 report in something called the Stone & Webster Journal noted that only his skeleton was preserved, bequeathed to the Boston Museum of Natural History.

That was a precursor to the Museum of Science, whose spokeswoman Lauren Crowne confirmed this listing in their old accession records: “Acc. 4113. Skeleton of horse. Received July 16, 1892. Given by H.M. Whitney for the West End Railway.”

But the skeleton’s whereabouts are now unknown. Much of the natural history collection was given to Harvard in the 1940s, and some to Yale. Anyone seen Old Billy?

An unpleasant crossing

Earlier this summer, just before the MBTA’s fare increases, I received a note from a reader frustrated about being double-charged to use the elevator at Downtown Crossing to change between the Red Line and Orange Line. The elevator is outside the fare gates.

“At Downtown Crossing, we need to exit, walk the long corridor to the turnstiles near the elevators at the Red Line, and pay again. We have been doing this for quite some time now, but as the rates are almost doubling [July 1] we are not willing to continue with this practice,” she wrote. “We usually do this on a Sunday, and there are no MBTA attendants in sight.”

At the time, I checked with MBTA spokesman Josh Robin, who acknowledged this had been a known issue since the T replaced and modernized the fare gates for the 2006 rollout of the CharlieCard.

Robinsaid a solution was in the works, but at the time the best he could offer was to contact customer service and request a refund whenever an MBTA employee was not around to allow people back through the gates at no charge.

Good news: The T solved the problem a few weeks ago, installing call boxes and signs on the Red Line and Orange Line levels, informing people who use the elevator that they can press a button to connect with MBTA personnel and be let back in after using the elevator without being double-charged.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com
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