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Starts & Stops

‘Good luck with that’: How New Englanders are resisting highway exit renumbering

David L. Ryan/File/Globe Staff

Who ever said New Englanders were parochial?

States in this corner of the country are starting to come to grips with a Federal Highway Administration mandate that they number their highway exits based on distance from the start of the highway or the state border, rather than in sequential order.

But not without some resistance — in some cases, from powerful places.

“They’ve been trying to get us to do this for years, with this threat,” New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said in an interview. “Good luck with that. . . . We’re going to fight it the whole way.”

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It might sound outlandish to Massachusetts drivers, but the mileage-based exits have long been common across much of the country. The idea, which predates modern technology such as GPS, is to make it easier for drivers to tell where they are and first responders to find crash sites. The mileage-based system also does not require exits to be renumbered when new off-ramps are added.

Rhode Island has already begun making the change on its highways, and officials in other states, including Massachusetts, have signaled they’ll do so soon. (Maine made the switch more than a decade ago.)

New Hampshire, too, would renumber exits by the middle of next decade under a 10-year transportation plan approved by a panel led by the state’s Executive Council, an elected board with power separate from the governor. Sununu, however, is rallying against the idea, calling on state lawmakers to reject the project.

His opposition is partially practical, he said; many towns and businesses that market themselves based on their closest highway exit would need to redo these campaigns. Plus, GPS has made mileage-based systems nearly useless, he argued. But perhaps most important, Sununu said, is that the old highway numbers carry spiritual or emotional weight.

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“It’s how we identify,” he said. In his native town of Salem, “you were an Exit 1, 2, or 3 kid, and it kind of said where you were in the town.”

Yet resistance may prove futile. Less than two years ago, Governor Phil Scott of Vermont said he didn’t much like the idea. Now, Vermont’s transportation agency plans to replace the exit signs — though it will be a “slow transition,” spokeswoman Amy Tatko said.

Federal officials say there is no set deadline for states to change their signs but said the requirement has been in place since 2009.

Massachusetts expects to begin renumbering highway exits across the state, starting next summer and moving from west to east.

State transportation officials say they won’t be changing exit numbers on Routes 213, 291, or 391 or the Lowell Connector because of the tight spacing between exits there.

But major highways will see new numbers elsewhere. The Allston Interchange on the Mass. Pike, for example, would change from Exit 18 to Exit 131, and the all-important Exit 37 on Interstate 93, where it junctions with I-95, will become Exit 28.

Some state lawmakers are objecting to the plan for the part of Route 6 that carries the Mid-Cape Highway. The route stretches from California to Provincetown, but its run along the mid-Cape is the only stretch in Massachusetts with highway exits. Under the new rules, exits along that section would be based on distance from the Rhode Island borderso the first exit a driver would see coming over the Sagamore Bridge would be Exit 55.

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State Senator Julian Cyr of Truro said it may make sense to use mileage-based markers on the highway, but they should measure distance along the Cape.

“For anybody who makes a life on Cape Cod, the traffic infrastructure points where you’re orienting your lives are the bridge or the Orleans rotary,” he said. “To orient it in context with distance from the border with Rhode Island seems kind of absurd.”

Cyr said the state Department of Transportation should petition the federal government for an exception on Route 6. Judith Reardon, a Massachusetts Transportation Department spokeswoman, said the state will discuss options for the highway with federal highway officials.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.