|TDCJ industrial shop makes road signs for the times
Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) makes signs for the times.
|Beto Sign Shop supervisor Rick Dockery and two offenders check the lettering on a new overhead sign made for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Photo by David Nunnelee
The signs made primarily at the Beto Unit near Palestine are more reflective than the older versions and printed in a new font designed to be easier for motorists to read. They’re highway guide signs, the large directional billboards fastened to overpasses across the state that help drivers find their way.
TCI has been producing road signs for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and other government entities for 25 years but just got into making the giant green and white overhead signs last July. Until then, they were made by TxDOT and private contractors, and some still are. But since the summer, the Beto Sign Shop has produced $100,000 worth of the signs or sold the material for making them. A second sign shop, recently opened at the Boyd Unit near Fairfield, sells road sign sheeting panels to customers that also include state agencies other than TxDOT, cities, counties and school districts.
“It’s going to be lucrative, I think,” said Sign Shop Manager Tim Williams about the new overhead sign business. “So far, so good.”
Williams estimates that about 90 percent of the signs Texas motorists see along roadways maintained by the state come from TDCJ in one form or another. Last fiscal year, the Beto Sign Shop produced 1.1 million square feet of signage that brought in $5.9 million in retail sales. Sales to TxDOT accounted for approximately 98 percent of the revenue total. Sales to other outside customers typically amount to between $150,000 to $200,000 annually, Williams said.
“TxDOT pays the bills,” he said.
But before paying the bills, TxDOT meticulously tests the materials that go into the making of the road signs and then inspects the finished products to ensure that they meet specifications. The state transportation agency has two full-time inspectors assigned to Beto to monitor quality assurance of the signs that must meet strict standards for reflectivity and other properties. Prior to production, samples of the aluminum panels used for the signs are tested at the TxDOT testing laboratory in Austin, where samples of the reflective sheeting and colored inks are also scrutinized.
“Every raw material that we use goes through a testing process,” Williams said.
Once cut primarily from high-grade plywood, road signs are now made almost exclusively from aluminum, a costlier raw material than plywood but more environmentally-friendly because of its suitability for recycling.
“The reason for getting away from the plywood was that it had no value after it became a sign,” Williams said. “It stays out there until it’s run over or it rots. Aluminum can be reused, offsetting the higher cost.”
Over the past three years, the Beto Sign Shop itself has salvaged about 200,000 square feet of aluminum from damaged road signs by stripping off their sheeting with a high-pressure water spray and reusing the panels. It uses old plywood signs collected by TxDOT from around the state to build palettes that now hold the new aluminum plates.
Regulatory signs, such as those that tell drivers to stop or yield on the roadway, account for about 30 percent of TDCJ’s production, Williams said.
“They’re the signs that if you don’t follow you get a ticket,” he said. “It’s nothing to get an order for a thousand stop signs at one time.”
TDCJ offenders about 97 are assigned to the Beto Sign Shop also make the yellow warning signs that alert motorists to road hazards and the orange signs seen along road construction zones. Other signs produced at Beto include those that mark school crossings and those used for civil defense purposes, such as the marking of a hurricane evacuation route along the Texas Gulf Coast. Producing street signs for cities makes up a small portion of the shop’s business.
Williams said the new aluminum overhead guide signs are made with sheeting that contains tiny glass prisms rather than the small round glass beads used in the sheeting on the old signs, making them more reflective at night. The new font, called Clearview, incorporates both capital and lowercase letters to make the signs easier to read. TxDOT has been installing the new signs in the Houston region over the past year at a cost of $4.5 million.
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