HBA: A Broken Law

Passed in 1965, the HBA is the only federal environmental regulation that requires taxpayers to pay the polluter to stop polluting. Loopholes have made the HBA little more than a Billboard Protection and Proliferation Act.

The HBA falls short in two major ways:

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1. The HBA allows billboards to be erected virtually everywhere — in any commercial/industrial area adjacent to interstate and federal-aid primary highways.

But the guidelines as to what constitutes commercial/industrial activity are extremely lax. In many states, a single general store could generate six 1200 square-foot billboards, a total of 7200 square feet of sign space, roughly four times the size of an average house. In many states, activists report that sign companies have built sham businesses to secure the necessary state permit.According to the US Department of Transportation Inspector General, the HBA is “too liberal in permitting new signs” to be constructed.

 

2. The HBA makes it virtually impossible to remove nonconforming billboards.

 

Amortization is a commonly used method of billboard removal. The idea is simple and fair to give the billboard operator a grace period of five to eight years to remove it, during which he can recoup his investment. Despite amortization’s fairness and the repeated court rulings that it is constitutional, the billboard lobby convinced Congress in 1978 to prohibit amortization along interstate and federal-aid primary highways. Thus, nonconforming billboards are protected under the HBA unless state and local governments pay taxpayer money to remove them. In 1978 the Secretary of Transportation accurately predicted the amendment “would undermine efforts to control scenic blight along our highways.” According to the Federal Highway Administration, the prohibition of amortization has kept over 38,000 billboards standing despite local ordinances seeking to remove them. No one knows how much removal would cost. So far the federal government has spent $250 million in compensation to billboard companies with virtually no impact.