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Conflict Assessment: Federal Outdoor Advertising Control Program

Background

The Highway Beautification Act

The Highway Beautification Act (HBA) was passed in 1965 to: 1) protect the public investment in highways, 2) promote the safety and recreational value of public travel, and 3) preserve natural beauty. Since its passage the HBA has been amended several times.

The HBA established Federal government control of outdoor advertising along over 300,000 miles of highways. This network includes Interstate Highways, National Highways and various other highways constructed with Federal funding. States were required to develop Federal-state agreements and then to administer their programs in a manner consistent with Federal law and regulations, with oversight by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) through its Outdoor Advertising Control (OAC) Program.

In brief, the HBA limits outdoor advertising to zoned and unzoned commercial and industrial areas and to the sites where advertised goods or services are offered. Signs that were legally erected prior to the enactment of the HBA, but did not conform to HBA restrictions are called "nonconforming signs." The law addresses their removal and the provision of just compensation. Signs along scenic byways as designated by the states were also included under the purview of the Act. In the event of a state's failure to provide effective control, the Act calls for withholding 10 percent of Federal highway funding apportioned to the state.

There are 46 states and several U.S. territories that regulate outdoor advertising under the HBA. Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont opted to exclude billboards. In general, states, counties and municipalities may adopt regulations that are more restrictive to the billboard industry than the Federal law as long as their programs are consistent with Federal law.1

Conflict Around the Outdoor Advertising Control Program

The HBA has engendered conflict on a range of issues over the years from if and how nonconforming billboards are removed to the definition of commercial businesses. Some issues have been addressed legislatively and some through rulemaking. However, there remain a number of issues that create controversy. The FHWA wanted a neutral assessment about these issues to provide input into its decision making on ways to improve Program results. The assessment also serves to inform all stakeholders about the range of issues and the potential for resolution.

Background About the Assessment

In 2005 the Office of Real Estate Services at FHWA Headquarters contacted the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution for assistance in understanding and resolving OAC-related conflicts.2 The U.S. Institute convened a group of representative stakeholders (called the Assessment Resource Group or ARG) representing diverse interests with respect to outdoor advertising to help guide the Assessment process.3 The ARG:

  1. Developed criteria for assessor selection.
  2. Participated in the assessor selection process, facilitated by the U.S. Institute.4
  3. Provided early guidance about who should be interviewed.
  4. Suggested which cities across the country should be visited.
  5. Offered technical assistance and offered individual perspectives about a range of issues.
  6. Gave early input about the question areas to be explored.
  7. Helped publicize the assessment effort and identify specific individuals to be interviewed and to participate in the focus groups.

Purpose of the Assessment

FHWA and the U.S. Institute jointly issued a Federal Register notice defining the purpose of the Assessment as follows:

The goal of the assessment is to reach out, through a neutral entity, to parties interested in OAC to identify issues that cause controversy, perspectives of the various stakeholders, and appropriate methods for addressing conflicts and improving program results... The FHWA wishes to better understand the nature and complexity of the conflicts that have developed in connection with the HBA, and what paths toward resolution are available.

How We Conducted this Assessment

In conducting this Assessment, information was solicited through four primary mechanisms: personal interviews, focus group discussions, public listening sessions and comments to an open docket in the Federal Register. We also attended the National Alliance of Highway Beautification Agencies conference in August 2006 that was helpful in introducing us to a range of outdoor advertising control issues.5

During the Assessment, we visited seven cities6 where we interviewed 103 individuals, conducted focus group discussions with 50 people, and had over 200 individuals attend public "listening" sessions. A methodical process was initiated to solicit nominations for interviews. For personal interviews, names were provided by ARG members, interviewees were asked to suggest other names, and input was received through the Federal Register.

The majority of the personal interviews were conducted face-to-face; these were augmented by telephone interviews.7 Focus groups were by invitation, representative of various interests, and sought to address selected issues in depth through interactive discussion among the participants. Public listening sessions offered an opportunity for members of the general public to offer their perspectives.

In addition to the in-person mechanisms mentioned above, FHWA solicited public comment on OAC issues through a notice in the Federal Register and the opening of a docket for comment. The U.S. Institute provided us with a summary of these comments so that the docket information could also inform this Assessment. In the period of almost five months during which the docket was open approximately 1,800 comments were received, several of which are included in this Assessment.

All personal interviews were conducted in confidence. The results of these interviews are synthesized in this report without attribution. This report is our summary of the issues and challenges facing the implementation of the HBA through the OAC Program. It reflects the issues and concerns expressed by various stakeholders and interested parties as we heard and understood them. We have tried to impartially reflect what we heard about the nature of the challenges and the potential for solutions. To the extent there are errors, they belong solely to us.


1 For additional background on the Highway Beautification Act, see: www.fhwa.dot.gov/real_estate/oac/oacprog.cfm and http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/real_estate/oac/

2 The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution is a Federal agency that provides alternative dispute resolution and conflict management services for conflicts involving Federal agencies or Federal interests. The U.S. Institute "provides a neutral place inside the Federal government, but independent of other agencies, where public and private interests can reach common ground through the use of non-adversarial, interest-based negotiation. For additional information see www.ecr.gov

3 See Appendix A for a listing of ARG membership.

4 In March 2006, the U.S. Institute issued a letter requesting "expressions of interest and statements of qualifications for conducting a conflict/situation assessment related to outdoor advertising and its regulation at the Federal level." The ARG interviewed all candidates and selected the Osprey Group, a dispute resolution and mediation firm based in Boulder, Colorado, and its partner, HNTB, to conduct the Assessment. For more information about the Osprey Group, see www.theospreygroup.com

5 Throughout this report we have inserted quotes from our interviews and the Federal Register in italics. On a few occasions, we have included comments made at the NAHBA conference without attribution. These are not distinguished from other quotes in any way.

6 The cities visited were selected with the assistance of the ARG, and were, in chronological order: Sacramento, Cleveland, Austin, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Philadelphia.

7 A list of those who were interviewed may be found in Appendix B. The distribution of interviewees and focus group participants was spread among four stakeholder groups: Federal and state government, local government, industry (sign owners, advertisers, suppliers, landowners), and scenic (environmental interests including garden clubs and scenic organizations). A table that summarizes the sectors which interviewees and focus group participants represented is presented in Appendix C.

Updated: 09/05/2014
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