The Highway Beautification Act

A Broken Law

Tuesday, April 1, 1997

The Highway Beautification Act

A Broken Law

In 1965, in an attempt to preserve the scenic beauty of America's highways, Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act (HBA), one of the first modern environmental laws. The Act was originally designed to prohibit construction of new billboards on scenic and rural federal-aid highways, and to require the removal of illegal billboards (those erected without proper permits). Billboards that do not meet the standards of the HBA are designated as nonconforming and marked for removal.

Thirty-two years after its passage, the Act has become little more than a billboard protection program. On average, new billboards are twice as big as they were in 1965, and there are fifty percent more of them than 30 years ago when Lady Bird Johnson championed highway beautification. Today there are an estimated 450,000 billboards on federal-aid highways, compared to the 330,000 billboards that first inspired the Act. Between 5,000 to 15,000 new billboards - 3 and 10 million square feet of new advertising space - are added to the nation's roadsides each year.

Rural and scenic areas are not protected from billboard blight by the HBA. Most states allow construction of new billboards in unzoned rural areas, in direct conflict with the original intent of the law. Twenty-four (24) states allow billboard operators to cut down trees on public rights of way to improve the view of private billboards. Nationwide, taxpayers provide a $6-10 million subsidy to the billboard industry each year because fees for billboard permits do not cover the full costs of controlling the industry.

What's more, the HBA actually protects billboards from community efforts to remove them. Until 1978, communities that decided to remove billboards could choose any constitutional means to do so, from up front cash payments to amortization, which allows billboard operators a grace period of five to eight years to recoup their investment and make a profit, at the end of which the billboards come down. In 1978, however, Congress derailed this process. It amended the HBA to require that communities pay cash compensation for removal of billboards on federal-aid highways - and shortly thereafter stopped providing money for billboard removal.

Nationwide there are 73,000 billboards that do not conform with HBA standards. In 1995, just 503 were removed.

The industry claims that billboards are necessary for travelers, yet logo signs along highways (Gas at this exit: ...), state tourist information programs (Country Inn 2 miles), and advancing technologies make this notion obsolete. Indeed, cigarette and alcohol advertising provides as much as one quarter of all billboard industry revenue, and six of the top eight billboard advertisers are tobacco or alcohol conglomerates. According to advertising industry sources, cigarette companies are pouring tens of millions more dollars into billboards. Why? Because billboards are a sure way to reach kids. After the Joe Camel cartoon was introduced, Camel's market share among underage smokers jumped from 0.5 percent to 32.8 percent

Given this history, it is not surprising that the Highway Beautification Acti is strongly supported by the billboard industry.


Fixing the Highway Beautification Act

Congress will soon reauthorize the nation's transportation law, and will have a golden opportunity to improve the Highway Beautification Act. In order to protect the natural beauty of our country's highways, Congress must:

  • Protect rural areas by prohibiting billboards in unzoned areas. Loopholes in the law allow new billboards to be erected not only in these commercial and industrial regions, but in so-called "unzoned" areas - many of which are pristine rural communities. These loopholes must be closed.
  • End subsidies to the billboard industry. Congress must relieve taxpayers from subsidizing the billboard industry by collecting fees from billboard operators that adequately cover the costs of the highway beautification program, including the costs of removing billboards that no longer meet current standards.
  • Protect public land and the environment by disallowing "vegetation control" to improve billboard visibility. In many states, billboard operators legally clearcut trees and other vegetation on public land in order to improve the views to their billboards. This practice must be stopped.
  • Restore local control over the billboard industry. Current regulations - by mandating the form of the payment that must be made to remove nonconforming billboards - actually make it more difficult for communities to remove billboards from their roads and streets. Congress should not intrude on the rights of local government to choose any constitutional means to enforce local zoning laws.
  • Conduct a national billboard inventory. Lack of information makes it extremely difficult to enforce the standards of the HBA. Worse, the current state of ignorance creates ideal conditions for the proliferation of billboards many of which fail to meet the standards of the HBA.

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