Though the billboard lobby clings to the HBA, portraying it as “a law that works,” the fact is, it doesn’t. Here’s why.
As the US Department of Transportation Inspector General said in 1984, the HBA “has been ineffective in improving highway beautification as the number of signs located adjacent to the nation’s highways continues to increase… [It has] had little impact on enhancing the scenic and recreational value of highways.”
Here’s what’s wrong…
Thousands of new billboards are constructed annually.
- There are at least 425,000-450,000 billboards lining America’s federal-aid highways today (Congressional Research Service estimate, 1991).
- That number grows by about 5,000-15,000 billboards annually (Congressional Research Service and Scenic America estimates).
- The maximum allowable number of billboards under the Highway Beautification Act: 21 structures per mile on Interstate highways, 36 structures per mile on rural primary highways, 106 per mile on urban primary highways — more than 10 million nationwide.
Rural and scenic areas are under siege from billboard blight.
- According to a 1984 US Department of Transportation study, sign companies have resorted to using inactive or sham businesses as the basis for securing the necessary state permits in rural areas.
- In a 1996 Scenic America survey, 34 of 42 responding states report that, under HBA regulations, billboards are legally constructed in rural areas.
- HBA rules are so permissive that one business in a rural, unzoned area may be surrounded by as many as eight, 1200 square foot billboards.
Thousands of publicly owned trees are clearcut each year to improve the visibility of billboards on private property.
- The HBA allows billboard operators to come onto the public highway right of way and clearcut public trees to improve the visibility of their billboards.
- Billboard operators clearcut publicly owned trees at least 1,000-2,500 times a year in 24 states.
- “At one site [in 1983 in Louisiana] over 2,000 feet of vegetation and trees were cut and cleared to enhance the visibility of two signs” — leaving behind more than 900 stumps. US General Accounting Office (1985 report).
Few nonconforming billboards are removed, and virtually all conforming billboards remain from year to year.
- Today, 38 years after the HBA passed, more than 73,000 nonconforming billboards — those legally erected boards that no longer conform to laws and are targeted for removal — line America’s federal-aid highways.
- On average, fewer than 1% of the remaining nonconforming boards are removed under the HBA each year (FHWA statistics, 1991-1995).
- Every state reported to Scenic America that at least 90% of existing billboards remain in place from year to year, and the majority of states — 17 of 33 that could respond — said that 100% remain.
Because of inadequate permit fees, public subsidies to billboard operators total more than $6 million each year.
- 37 of 44 states responding to Scenic America reported that the costs of their billboard control program outpaced their revenue from billboard permit fees — by a combined total of more than $6 million.
- “Billboards… are of little value… unless great highways bring the traveling public within view of them, and their enhanced value when they are seen by a large number of people was created by the State in the construction of roads and not by the signs’ owners.” — from Modjeska Signs Studios, Inc. V. Berle, New York Court of Appeals, 1977.
- Despite this fact, billboard operators pay no road user taxes, tolls, or fees, and the public has paid more than $250 million to remove nonconforming billboards.
Because of the lack of funds dedicated to the beautification program, state DOTs and the federal government often pay little more than lip service to billboard control efforts.
- According to the US DOT Inspector General (1984), “FHWA monitoring of state outdoor advertising programs has allowed the states to forego resolving known program violations and to become lax in detecting additional violations.”
- Many states have only vague or incomplete statistics, with at least 10 able to provide only minimal information on numbers of billboard permits, total deficit, etc.
- Although the states reported removing only 503 nonconforming billboards, they reported the number of nonconforming boards remaining to have declined by more than 3,000. Four states, chosen at random, were unable to explain the discrepancy.