Language warning: This story contains words some may find offensive.
The Highway Beautification Act will be 50 years old next year. As envisioned by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, it was supposed to protect the natural landscape from billboards.
Ever since its passage, scenic activists and billboard companies have been at war over the views along American highways. The outdoor advertising industry says its signs are informational, and helpful to local businesses. Open-space advocates call them "sky trash" and "litter on a stick."
The battle continues today. You can see it on the roads of Texas, where more than 350 towns and cities have banned new billboards — but billboard companies continue to push for taller and more technologically advanced signs.
Marred Vistas And Distracted Drivers
LBJ didn't think much of the billboard lobby. It thwarted Lady Bird's vision to beautify America's roadsides, and it frustrated him as a politician who wanted to get his way.
"This damn billboard lobby has run this country," Johnson said in a telephone call in 1968, three years after passage of the Highway Beautification Act. "I never seen such a goddam group of selfish, eager hogs. They won't even let people sit down and try to reason with 'em," he said.
Times have changed. The billboard lobby — though still powerful and well-funded — is not the lightning rod it was in Washington, D.C., a half-century ago.
Today, the fights have mostly moved to statehouses and city halls, where billboard lobbyists press for newer signs, taller signs, tree-cutting to improve signs' visibility and big condemnation payouts for old signs.
Over the summer, a battle played out in Texas when billboard companies asked the state highway department to let them raise signs to the height of a six-story building. The public was not happy.
One public commenter, Chris Cornwall, said the Texas Department of Transportation should be more concerned with promoting safety — and keeping drivers' eyes on the road — than with raising billboards.
Another, Katherine Romans, said, "These vistas and dark skies are already marred in many places by the proliferation of billboards." Raising their height would only make it worse, she said.
Theirs were among 900 public comments — all opposing the rule change that would have permitted heightened signs.
Late last month, the Texas Department of Transportation removed the proposal to raise billboards from consideration.
The recent skirmish in Texas underscores a truth about the modern politics of billboards. Their unpopularity is growing, even as their profits do, too.
More and more cities see billboards as visual blight. Four states — Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine — have banned them outright. Rhode Island and Oregon have said no new billboards.
In Texas, 388 cities — including most large and medium-size cities — have ordinances prohibiting new billboards. One of them is Austin, where Mike Martinez is on the city council.
"You know, the sign pollution that inundates our roadways is a big concern to a lot of residents," Martinez says. "I just have seen this ongoing, continued struggle of trying to eliminate billboards within the city limits of Austin."
Billboard companies understand that metropolitan aesthetics are changing.
"A lot of cities across Texas have said no new ones, but most everything that's in those cities has been grandfathered," says Lee Vela, president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas.
"So it doesn't mean elimination of the industry, it just means we don't want to see more growth. And we respect those decisions in those cities."
'The Billboard Protection Act'
The big question is, 49 years after its passage, has the Highway Beautification Act lived up to its name?
Margaret Lloyd, vice president of Scenic Texas, believes it hasn't. "In fact, it's known as the Billboard Protection Act," she says.
As it happens, Houston — legendary for sprawl and a zoning free-for-all — is a model city for billboard control. Since 1980, the number of billboards here has dropped from 15,000 to under 1,500.
But they're still lined up along the sides of the city's Interstate 45.
"The city can only do so much. These roads are federal highways. They're regulated by the feds," Lloyd says. "The Highway Beautification Act has protected these billboards from being removed by the city unless the city pays cash compensation."
Cities that ban new billboards, like Houston, can either pay the billboard company to take them down — which gets very expensive, very quickly — or swap old billboards for new ones.
For instance, Dallas has also banned new billboards, but it made a deal with the billboard companies. For every three old billboards you take down, the city council said, we'll let you erect one new digital billboard. The industry is erecting digital billboards as fast as it can, because companies can charge eight different advertisers for messages that flash consecutively on one sign.
Don Glendenning, president of Scenic Dallas, stands on a grassy patch on the northwest edge of downtown. Above him is a tall, double-sided digital billboard that's flashing message after message. "It is, to my eye, jarringly out of place," he says.
Dallas will soon have 50 digital billboards, more than any other U.S. city except for Los Angeles.
"I think we got a really bad deal in Dallas. I think the industry made out like bandits," Glendenning says. "It's the job of the industry to make money for their shareholders. They're doing a great job."
Giving Back, Growing Profits
The billboard industry insists it doesn't just sell sign space, Vela says. It also gives it away to law enforcement to post most-wanted photos, and to emergency managers to use during emergencies.
"That's all free of charge," Vela says. "So we want to give back to our communities that we're working in."
Even as state and local governments enact more restrictions on billboards, the industry is thriving.
A report by the market research firm IBIS World says outdoor advertising is a $10 billion industry that's projected to grow 4.5 percent in the next five years.
And in Texas, the birthplace of the Highway Beautification Act, cities continue to curtail new billboards — while rural highways are filling up with empty signs looking for customers.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR news. I'm Scott Simon. The Highway Beautification Act will be 50 years old next year. As envisioned by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, it was supposed to encourage wildflower planting, hide junkyards and control billboards. Despite its passage, scenic activists and billboard companies have kind of been at war.
NPR's John Burnett reports from the law's birth place, the state of Texas. And please note, it's a Texas story so there's a bit of strong language.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Houston, with hundreds of miles of loop roads, is a good place to ask if the Highway Beautification Act has lived up to its name.
MARGARET LLOYD: No, it has not. In fact, it's known as the Billboard Protection Act.
BURNETT: Margaret Lloyd, vice president of Scenic Texas is cruising the highways on a sweltering August day. As it happens, Houston, legendary for its sprawl and zoning free-for-all, is a model city for billboard control. Since 1980, the number of billboards here has dropped from 15,000 to under 1,500. New highways are billboard-free, but older roads like this one, Interstate 45, are lined with billboards advertising mobile phones, barbecue and pickup trucks.
LLOYD: The city can only do so much. These roads are federal highways. They're regulated by the feds. The Highway Beautification Act has protected these billboards from being removed by the city unless the city pays cash compensation.
BURNETT: Cash payments are not the only ways to remove billboards up I-45 in Dallas. New billboards are banned and old signs are coming down. The city council made a deal with the billboard companies - for every three existing signs you take down, we'll let you erect one new digital billboard. The industry loves digitals because it can charge eight different advertisers for messages that flash consecutively on one sign.
DON GLENDENNING: Right now, we're standing underneath a gigantic, extremely tall, double-sided digital billboard with changing messages very regularly.
BURNETT: Don Glendenning, president of Scenic Dallas stands next to a highway intersection on the edge of downtown.
GLENDENNING: It is, to my, eye to my jarringly out of place.
BURNETT: Dallas will soon have 50 digital billboards, more than any other American city, except Los Angeles.
GLENDENNING: I think we've got a really bad deal in Dallas. I think the industry made out like bandits.
BURNETT: The industry claims that digital billboards also have a public benefit. Lee Vela of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas points to the sign space they give away to law enforcement to post photos of most wanted criminals and the electric signs that are used by local government during hurricanes.
LEE VELA: That's an incredible tool for the county, emergency folks, to be able to tap in to. And that's all free of charge. So we want to give back to our communities that we're working in.
BURNETT: Thanks in part to digital billboards, the industry is on its way back after the great recession. A report by the market research firm IBISWorld says outdoor advertising is a $10 billion industry that's projected to grow four and a half percent in the next five years. The industry employs top lobbyists who are ever-present in Washington, D.C., state capitals and city halls. They push tirelessly for newer signs, taller signs, tree cutting in front of signs, and big condemnation payouts for old signs. Lyndon Johnson never much cared for the billboard lobby, as it pushed back on the Highway Beautification Act that was dear to Ladybird.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This damn billboard lobby is running this country.
BURNETT: This a 1968 telephone recording between LBJ and congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHNSON: But I've never seen such a goddamn group of selfish, eager hogs. They won't even let people sit down and try to reason with them.
BURNETT: The modern reality of billboards is even as their profits are growing, so is their unpopularity. A recent skirmish here in Texas underscored that point. Over the summer, billboard companies had asked the highway department, known as TexDOT, to let them raise signs to the height of a six-story building so they could be seen over trees. The public was not happy.
CHRIS CORNWELL: This rule can't be allowed. TexDOT should be far more concerned about safety and keeping eyes on the road than enabling the billboard industry.
BURNETT: This comment by Chris Cornwell at a June hearing in Austin was one of 900 public comments. All of them were against taller billboards. Late last month, the Texas Department of Transportation removed from consideration the proposal to raise billboard height.
More and more cities consider billboards as visual blight. In Texas 388 cities, including most large and medium-sized ones, have ordinances prohibiting new billboards and the list keeps growing. Mark Shadid, a 15-year-old high school junior in Dallas, has made billboard control his cause.
MARK SHADID: I think that by controlling the amount of digital billboards in our area, we can truly make a difference in how Dallas is looked at.
BURNETT: And it's not just Texas. Rhode Island and Oregon have said no new billboards. Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine have banned them altogether. Billboard companies understand that metropolitan aesthetics are changing. Again, Lee Vela with the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas.
VELA: Cities across Texas - a lot of cities across Texas, have said no new ones. But most everything that's in those cities has been grandfathered. So it doesn't mean it elimination of the industry, it just means, we don't want to see more growth. And we respect those decisions in those cities.
BURNETT: Nearly half a century after passage of the Highway Beautification Act, the desire for scenic roadsides is as strong as ever and so is the wealth and clout of the billboard industry.
John Burnett. NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.