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Nonprofit sues government to ban electronic billboards from highways

Scenic America calls these "TVs-on-a-stick" a distraction and wants them taken down.

By Douglas Newcomb Jan 25, 2013 11:56AM

Electronic billboard. Photo courtesy of Scenic America.Now that we’re inundated with annoying and animated digital ads on everything from our computers to smartphone applications, the highway billboard may seem quaint by comparison. But that was the static billboards of old, not the modern ones that change intermittently to try to sell you something.

Scenic America, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works to “reduce billboard blight in America” wants to see what it calls “TVs-on-a-stick” banned from highways, and is suing the federal agency in charge of regulating them to make sure they are.

Earlier this week, the organization filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to overturn what it calls a “controversial Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) ruling" in 2007 on intermittently changing commercial digital billboards.  The ruling reversed the FHWA’s previous position that banned such billboards. The Scenic America lawsuit contends that the agency “has wrongfully allowed commercial digital billboards to proliferate along federal highways nationwide.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Scenic America and its members by Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation. It maintains that the FHWA’s 2007 guidance violates the lighting standards established under the customary-use provisions of Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act, signed into law in 1965. The law was intended to limit and control outdoor advertising to commercial and industrial zones near highways, but states have been left to determine and enforce these zones and have varying rules on what signs they allow. In some cases, states have created "strip zones" where no actual industrial area is present. The FHWA has said it rejects that practice.

Many states regulate electronic billboards in different ways, but in 1998, the FHWA issued a memorandum that "off-premise signs using animated or scrolling displays that are dependent on flashing, intermittent or moving lights were not conforming signs." In 2007, the FHWA said that "electronic signs that have stationary messages for a reasonably fixed time" did not violate the law and issued recommended intervals between changing messages.

Since then, the agency's word (on its own words) has been up for debate.

“For over five years, we have pleaded with FHWA to do the right thing and revoke the memorandum," said Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, in a statement. "In every instance, they have turned a blind eye to the standards established by the Highway Beautification Act. These standards were meant to protect all citizens from the trespassing glow of digital billboards flashing commercial advertisements along high-speed roadways. Because the agency ignored the law, today we are asking the court to tell FHWA to follow the law."

According to Scenic America, brightly lit digital billboards carrying commercial messages that change every few seconds began to appear along federal highways around 2005. It added that state transportation officials who are charged with controlling outdoor advertising and following the FHWA’s long-held exclusion of intermittent commercial message lighting sought direction from the agency on the matter. Scenic America also asserts that the FHWA reversed its long-held position after “immense pressure from a powerful billboard lobby to approve the signs.”

It's even tougher to remove signs that are in obvious violation of the law. Another federal law requires the government to pay sign owners to remove signs that violate the Highway Beautification Act as "just compensation" for their land and purchase costs.

The FHWA declined to comment, citing the pending investigation.

Jan 26, 2013 4:46AM
Honestly, I feel all the billboards should be outright banned and removed. Up in Washington State, they are illegal, except for the ones that were alreayd put up as they were grandfathered in. But it is so nice not having to see these darn billboards as you drive down the highway. It is always annoying to see them littered all about the road, when driving through Oregon, I don't understand how the rest of you deal with seeing these things everywhere.
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