The Highway Beautification Act: 50 Years Later

ISA's Kenny Peskin recounts the changes HBA did -- and didn't -- incur for the sign industry
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Kenny Peskin is director of industry programs for ISA, for whom he regularly travels the country, advocating for better sign codes. Reach him at kenneth.peskin@signs.org, or follow him on Twitter @signcodeguy.
In the 1950s, the U. S. focused on roads. President Dwight Eisenhower committed to building 41,000 miles of interstate highways. The country’s booming population began to produce suburbs. And groups like the Garden Club of America and the National Wildlife Federation were upset by billboards and other “blight” (junkyards) visible along roadways in rural America. These groups were significant enough to gain the federal government’s attention.
As Congress increased funding for federal roads, it attached a new string: states that voluntarily controlled outdoor advertising according to federal standards would receive extra dollars to develop these roads. More than half of the states signed on. To coerce greater participation, President Lyndon Johnson included the issue in his 1965 State of the Union address. He’d replace the carrot of extra funding with a stick: states that didn’t participate would lose up to 10% of their highway funding. That triggered the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965, signed into law by Johnson on Oct. 22. Its 50th anniversary provides an opportunity to examine the impact of those changes – and some that never materialized – from the on-premise sign industry’s perspective.
Congressional wrangling
Johnson’s proposal wouldn’t go down easy in Congress. Rep. William Cramer (R-FL) complained that floor debates featured “the worst case of White House pressure and arm twisting I’ve ever seen in the House. If they’d only leave us alone, we’d write a good consensus bill.” The hearing and debate elicited significant opposition from groups concerned that billboard removal would divert the Highway Trust Fund away from building roads: the American Assn. of State Highway Officials, the National Assn. of Counties, and similar groups. HBA funding battles would continue for decades.
In September 1965, the Senate passed its HBA version (S. 2084). By October 7, the House of Representatives began its debate. Fearing a loss of votes if the House went into recess, the Administration and House leadership extended the debate late into the night – causing members to miss the President’s “Salute to Congress” scheduled that evening while “wives in party dresses” (CQ Almanac 1965) watched the HBA debate from the galleries. The House bill passed early in the morning on October 8.
As he signed Public Law 89-285, President Johnson said the HBA “does not represent everything that we wanted. It does not represent what we need. But it is a first step, and there will be other steps. For though we must crawl before we walk, we are going to walk” (CQ Almanac 1965).
The sign industry became involved by voluntarily seeking to improve beautification. William Haire (1961 National Electric Sign Assn. president) and John Martin pioneered the S.O.S. (Scrap Old Signs) program. On May 22, 1965, they coordinated the removal of 100 dilapidated signs in Columbus, OH. Over the next few years, more than 1,000 signs were scrapped in Columbus. NESA (the precursor to the current Intl. Sign Assn. [ISA]) adopted the program nationwide, removed several thousand signs, and won endorsements from (First) Lady Bird Johnson and numerous state and local leaders.
From law to regulations
Once the HBA passed, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) began ensuring that each state developed standards to comply with federal requirements for controlling billboards and junkyards, partially by scheduling public hearings in every state.
In a 1966 ST editorial, 32-year editor (1949-1981) Dave Souder urged the industry to get involved: “Much of the future of the media will depend upon how well the Industry presents its case at each of the 52 hearings.”
Souder couldn’t have been more prescient. When the Dept. of Commerce released draft standards, legislators began to question the development methodology. Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-WV), who managed the bill in the Senate, expressed great concern: “The draft standards published in the Federal Register… are not in accord with our oral understanding when the administration amendments were pending in the Senate. Finally, they are in violation of the language of the act itself.”
The release of these draft standards not only affected state-highway departments’ efforts to control billboards; local governments also used these draft standards to control on-premise signs. In Summer 1967, Danville, IL pulled down projecting business signs that violated “air rights”, because they encroached on a city street being improved with federal aid.
The city manager viewed the signs overhanging the sidewalk as an intrusion into the right-of-way, and he required removal. The Johnson Administration expected all states would align with the federal government in 1966-67 (to avoid 1968 imposition of the 10% penalty from highway funds) with significant removal of advertising by 1970. But examples like Danville, and growing disputes between various states and the (newly renamed) Federal Highway Administration over regulatory language and funding, slowed HBA’s implementation. Congressional hearings in 1967 led to the delay of implementation beyond the planned January 1, 1968 date.
In a 1967 editorial, Souder wrote: “While the Federal Highway Beautification Act is now law of the land, efforts of administrators to twist it into something far more restrictive than Congress had intended have been resisted and frustrated, for the most part. The mass of confusion that has resulted has at least pulled the reins on some of the most audacious plans to eliminate sign and outdoor-advertising activity.”
That hope soon turned to pessimism as Johnson continued to make it a signature element of his domestic agenda. However, the Vietnam War caused cutbacks in other programs. The beautification program put pressure on the states, though there was no funding for it. In August, passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1968 led to a new rule that only allowed for billboard removal if the federal share for compensation was available; if Congress failed to allocate funds, the states could not remove the sign.
When Johnson opted not to run for re-election, the pressures to battle off-premise signs might have been presumed dead. But President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe, kicked it up a notch. Volpe restudied the Federal HBA – and suggested broadening it to include on-premise signs.
He said, “In urban and suburban areas, most of the signs visible from the highway are on-premise signs, advertising goods sold or activities conducted at that location….It seems obvious that if visual clutter is to be reduced in these areas, consideration must be given to control of on-premise signs.”
In 1970, an 11-member Highway Beautification Commission was established. Congressman (and future Speaker of the House) Jim Wright (D-TX) attended the 1971 NESA meeting. He asked for the industry’s help: “It is better to come to Congress as one voice for the industry, expressing what all of you think.”
After several rounds of wrangling, the federal administration suggested state and local governments be given the responsibility of developing on-premise sign codes. In 1974, Luke Williams and Dennis McLaughlin (American Sign & Indicator; Spokane, WA) brought together leaders from key industry organizations: NESA, the Outdoor Adv. Assn. of America, the Roadside Business Assn., the Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Institute for Signage Research and 3M National Advertising Co., as well as several electric-sign manufacturers. The “Joint Sign Industry Educational Seminar Committee” was formed to help fulfill Luke Williams’ charge: “Signmen must get together and write industry-wide guidelines, or the federal government will do it for us.” (see ST, August 1974, pg. 94)
Throughout 1974-75, the on-premise sign industry prepared resources and research for an agency rulemaking session, a public hearing or a seminar. In late 1975, HUD declared the upcoming “Urban Signage Forum” would be less formal and not have any rulemaking overtones. The Joint Sign Industry Committee viewed this change as advantageous and requested the hearing be limited exclusively to on-premise signage. (see ST, January 1976, pg. 37).
Finally, the Forum
In April 1976, an all-star roster of 34 sign-industry leaders testified and presented evidence to the HUD panelists. As Dennis McLaughlin noted in his “The Regulation of On-Premise Signs” testimony: “Special problems follow those sign controls that are established by the federal government. In dealing with any federal agency, one finds oneself dealing with staff rules and regulations that have the force and effect of law. In this context, rules and regulations may be seen as fundamental in making a law understandable to those individuals who must comply with that law. But these regulations sometimes go beyond what would normally be considered the limits of interpretation.” (Proceedings of the Urban Signage Forum, pg. 133)
Souder noted a significant shift in tactics in a June 1976 ST article: “The sign industry climbed out of its defensive shell and went on the offensive in a big way…Beyond delivering the message of the sign industry to HUD, the forum has enabled the sign industry to assemble the most impressive material it has ever had available to defend itself against proposals of unreasonable sign restrictions…The problem now is to get that material refined and distributed to the people who are dealing with, or are influential in, legislation and administration of sign restrictions and controls.”
By the time the proceedings were published by HUD in 1977, yet another update to the Federal-Aid Highway Act had been passed in 1976 – without any significant impacts to on-premise signage. Gerald Ford’s administration was replaced by that of Jimmy Carter. The Joint Committee was dissolved. NESA and the Institute for Signage Research were about to merge, replace much of their key staff, and relocate from Chicago to Virginia. And as the 1970s moved into the 1980s, arguments about including on-premise signs in Highway Beautification amendments stopped appearing in FHWA proposals and Congressional bills.
Even now, 35 years after on-premise signs moved to the periphery of these debates, sign-industry leaders still work to clarify misconceptions and challenge beautification advocates who misstate the history of the HBA and its offshoot regulations. ISA staff will continue to travel and try to educate state-highway agencies and city councils.