Testimony of Meg Maguire
President Scenic America
before the
Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
March 19, 1997

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, for the opportunity to present Scenic America's views on the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). As a founding member of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, Scenic America speaks today on behalf of a broad coalition of environmental, preservation, community, and other organizations.

Scenic America's mission is to preserve and enhance the scenic character of America's communities and countryside. Since our founding in 1982, Scenic America has worked to establish scenic conservation as an integral part of the transportation decisionmaking process. With a committed national membership and affiliates in seven states, Scenic America is empowering communities to identify, preserve, and enhance their distinctive character and appearance.

We believe that while growth is inevitable, ugliness is not. An enlightened federal policy towards transportation -- which we trust ISTEA II will continue -- is fundamental to any vision for conserving scenic beauty character. The program recognizes some of America's most outstanding scenic roads, such as the Pacific Coast Highway. But it also recognizes roads with critical historic, cultural, and environmental qualities. For example, the Selma to Montgomery March Byway in Alabama commemorates the fabled civil rights march. And the Seaway Trail combines scenic vistas with the history of much of upstate New York.

Scenic America has worked actively with local and state groups to help make the byways program a success. For example, we are in a creative, privately funded partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation to establish a conservation-minded scenic byway program in that state. The program's advisory committee includes more than 40 state and local organizations, ranging from the Garden Clubs to the Southeast Travel and Tourism Society. More than 20 local groups have come forward seeking byway designation for roads they cherish.

Scenic America has also worked closely with state and local organizations in many other states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. In both states -- and in the many states that have received funds through the National Scenic Byways Program -- local activists have found the scenic byways program to be a powerful tool that brings community stakeholders, who are often on opposite sides of debate, together to develop a common vision for their community and to take steps to attain that vision. Demand for funding is high. Last year, states applied for three times more money than was available.

Several times in recent years, the billboard lobby has urged Congress to change the existing program and to allow new billboards to be constructed on designated scenic byways. As the Senate has wisely recognized, the provision which bans new billboards on designated scenic roads is a small but significant, common-sense measure to keep our byways scenic. It is widely supported and it is working.

The 20 new National Scenic Byways and All American Roads are a valuable addition to the roster of national programs that identify our nation's rich scenic, historic, and environmental heritage. These roads will prove to be popular with tourists, foreign and domestic alike.

These two great success programs should continue in the reauthorized ISTEA.

FIXING THE HIGHWAY BEAUTIFICATION ACT

But on another issue that has a critical impact on our communities and countryside -- billboards -- we have been notably unsuccessful. Mr. Chairman, the Highway Beautification Act, meant to control billboards, is completely broken and must be reformed. America the Beautiful is disappearing bit by bit, day by day. And one of the biggest reasons is uncontrolled billboard proliferation. We can afford no further delay in putting the beauty back in the Beautification Act.

Currently, under the Beautification Act, an estimated 500,000 billboards line our federal aid Interstate and primary highways. Five to 15,000 new ones go up each year -- proliferation that could continue almost endlessly. Tens of thousands of trees on public land are clearcut to improve billboard visibility. And the states are losing millions of dollars administering the program.

We can quite literally see the problems with the Highway Beautification Act. Our roadsides have been called "tubes of the hideous," "interminable wastelands," and "like television, violent and tawdry." And a big culprit in the degradation of our scenic heritage is the Highway Beautification Act.

Americans intuitively know that, as a nation, we can have the growth and economic development we need without degrading the scenic resources we treasure. The places we cherish -- where we'd most like to live, work, and visit -- are also those places that have been very intentional about protecting their distinctive scenic character. It's no coincidence that Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont are all renowned for their scenic splendor, and all four are billboard-free.

With each passing day, advancing technology provides new methods of communicating. Low-tech methods such as logo signs and tourist-oriented directional signs transmit vital traveler information without the visual pollution of billboards. Now, high tech tools like the Internet, in-car information systems, and emerging ITS technology will enable advertisers and consumers to communicate directly, cheaply, and efficiently, while preserving scenic vistas.

What do Americans think about billboards? Professional surveys conducted since 1990 make clear that Americans believe that enough is enough. For example:

*Sixty-three percent of Missouri residents favor a constitutional amendment to cap the number of billboards;
* Ninety percent of Florida residents believe that no new billboards should be built in their state;
* By a 2-1 margin, Rhode Islanders favored banning new billboards;
* By a three to one margin, New Hampshire residents opposed billboard advertising, and by a 2-1 margin favored outlawing billboards on state highways completely;
* In Houston, TX, 79% support the city's current law banning billboards; and Americans overwhelmingly oppose tree cutting for billboard visibility: 80-11% in New Hampshire, 75-25% in Florida, 80-17% in Missouri.

In addition, more than 200 communities annually fight to control billboards because they know that preserving and enhancing their unique character boosts their local economy and improve their quality of life.

Yet in spite of all the activism and concern, too often the message is not heard. The billboard lobby has, in fact, nearly perfected the art of fighting meaningful regulation. Listen to just two voices:

* A comment in the Mobile (AL) Register: "I managed for a large billboard company for 31 years... They are the poorest of corporate citizens. They have a massive local, state, and federal lobby."
* From the US General Accounting Office:"... states have expressed a feeling that, even if they were to pursue a strict policy in sign acquisition and control, FHWA would provide little support against a strong industry."

Even the regulators, it appears, can't be counted on to implement this program.

What can we do to fix the Highway Beautification Act? We ask Congress to do five things:

First put real controls on the number of billboards. Perhaps the biggest problem with the HBA is that it provides the illusion that billboards are controlled without actually controlling them. The HBA standards allow 106 billboard structures per mile on urban primary highways, 35 per mile on rural primary highways, and 21 per mile on rural Interstates - with no national maximum number of billboards.

This unlimited billboard proliferation is not beautification.

A 1996 Scenic America study of the 46 states that permit billboards, which we will release in early April, demonstrates that in most states the number of billboards is either rising or stable, and that nationally the number of billboards is rising by a minimum of 5,000 per year. An earlier study by the Congressional Research Service estimates the number at 15,000 per year.

In 1965, there were fewer than 330,000 standard billboards in all of America (The New Republic, April 23, 1966). Today, there are 500,000-- 50% more --just on the roads controlled by the HBA. And the number is still going up. Let's put a lid on billboard proliferation.

Second, protect rural areas from billboard blight. Under the Highway Beautification Act, thousands of billboards are already in rural areas; and more go up each year. In fact, since just a single business in an unzoned rural area means that new billboards can go up, billboard operators in Missouri, Montana, and elsewhere actually build sham businesses like unattended storage facilities just to get billboard permits.

Recently, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that the construction of sham businesses by billboard operators is common. What's more, while the billboard lobby publicly decries this abuse of the law, it has actively and vigorously opposed any and all attempts to make the state's law work.

In our survey, we found that over 85% of the states allow new billboards to be constructed in unzoned rural areas under this loophole -- with tens of thousands of billboards already in place.

Third, protect America's roadside trees. Under the Highway Beautification Act, tens of thousands of roadside trees on public land are clearcut each year to improve the visibility of billboards. The billboard industry calls this "vegetation management." But, as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle noted, "Having advertisers `manage' our vegetation seems a bit like having the fox guard the henhouse... Not a good idea."

Despite the obvious conflict with the public interest, trees are destroyed under the HBA in more than 1,500 locations in over 20 states each year. Industry lobbyists have sought more permissive tree cutting regulations in New York, New Hampshire, Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia in just the last 18 months.

Scenic conservation advocates have held the line in those states, but the fact is that ordinary citizens have a hard time being heard over the din of an organized, professionally run interest group like the billboard lobby.

Fourth, make billboard operators pay their fair share to use America's highways. Billboards are fundamentally users of our roads -- turn a billboard around facing away from the road, and it's worthless. Yet, unlike other Americans, billboard operators pay no road user taxes, tolls, or fees for the privilege. What's more, the permit fees the states do charge fail even to approach covering state costs of controlling billboards. In our study, we found the states are running a $6-10 million deficit each year in this program.

The cost of that deficit goes beyond simple dollars and cents. Without adequate funding, many states lack staff to administer the program. And without staff, control becomes lax. It is well known that without adequate funding many state DOTs pay only lip service to billboard control, resulting in spotty and ineffective enforcement of the HBA. As the General Accounting Office has noted, many states turn a blind eye even to known violations because the program has no teeth, and no one really cracks down on violators.

And twice in recent months, state DOT officials have told me that their states allow known illegal billboards to remain in place rather than incur the wrath of billboard operators.

Fifth, allow local communities to opt out of participation in the Highway Beautification Act. It is abundantly clear that the controls of the HBA are little more than a sham, standards that are little better than no standards at all.

We encourage the Congress to allow communities to decide not to participate in the Highway Beautification Act -- to opt out, in effect. This would allow incorporated municipalities to determine for themselves what course of action they would take on billboard control. Strict or lax, it would allow local leaders to make the decisions for local communities. But it would also allow communities to remain under the HBA, if they so choose.

Some communities might pursue a course stricter than the HBA, for example, amortizing nonconforming billboards. Others might allow more billboards than permissible under the HBA. But in either case, local leaders would make local decisions.

Sixth, ensure that policy makers and citizens have adequate information about the billboard issue. We learned in our survey that existing information is often fragmentary and hard to obtain. As a result, making good decisions about the HBA is inordinately difficult.

We call for two types of information to be made available: first, the Federal Highway Administration should develop and distribute a comprehensive annual billboard inventory. This inventory should include the All numbers of legal, illegal, and nonconforming billboards on federal-aid highways. Such an inventory could draw a much clearer picture of the failures and successes of the Highway Beautification Act. Second, we urge the Department of Transportation to undertake a study of the effects of billboards and other roadside distracters on traffic safety. The majority of reputable studies on this topic have found that roadside blight distracts drivers and compromises traffic safety. But no such study has been undertaken in this country in nearly 20 years. Clearly, with new technologies available, it is time to develop conclusive information about this important issue.

Mr. Chairman, it is clear that the Highway Beautification Act does little to beautify our nation's highways. The industry points out that under the Beautification Act the states may enact more restrictive controls, and this is true. But, quite frankly, a Highway Beautification Act that allows virtually unlimited billboard blight and whose only redeeming quality is that it allows the states to enact real billboard control is not a Highway Beautification Act worth keeping.

We believe that there remains a strong national interest in protecting natural beauty and our communities from billboard blight. We therefore support an effective Highway Beautification Act.

Senator James Jeffords has introduced S. 401, the Scenic Highway Protection Act, to close many of the loopholes in the HBA and once again make beauty the cornerstone of the Beautification Act.

His bill is fair yet effective, and we urge you to include its major provisions in ISTEA. It would place a cap on the number of billboards on our federal aid highway system, protect unzoned areas from new billboard blight, end tree cutting for billboard visibility, and place a gross revenue tax on billboards so that billboard operators, like the rest of us, will pay their fair share to use our national highway system.

America's beauty is one of its greatest assets. Thomas Jefferson wanted communities to be designed to foster maximum beauty in our daily lives. Our incomparable scenic beauty -- urban and rural alike -- has inspired artists, authors, and composers; it has shaped our values and our heritage. But beauty, like other precious resources, is fragile. Everyday beauty is no longer an everyday pleasure. More and more, scenic beauty is primarily for the privileged -- a value we find only if we travel to distant places.

Mr. Chairman, the Congress has a great opportunity in ISTEA II to make a profound difference in the appearance of this country. Maintaining funds for enhancements, protecting scenic roads, and enacting real billboard controls will be significant steps towards conserving the Beautiful America we cherish. Thank you.