For those of us old enough to remember, or those who are history buffs, U.S. highways were once lined with billboards/outdoor signage. However, this is not the case with the Interstate Highway System (IHS) – and that has been the case with the federal-aid primary highway system (and certain other roadways) since late 1965.
The Bonus Act of 1958
Construction of the IHS continued throughout 1958. (The system had been authorized, funds appropriated and initial construction began in 1956.) By the end of 1958, construction projects had been completed that brought 4,831 miles of highway substantially up to interstate highway standards or “at least to conditions adequate for current traffic.” (While many sections of the IHS were newly built, other sections were built on top of what were then current national highways.)
Also in 1958, Congress passed the first outdoor advertising control legislation. It was/is commonly known as the “Bonus Act.” National standards for state regulation of “outdoor advertising signs, displays and devices adjacent” to the IHS were published in the Federal Register on November 10, 1958.
Simply put, the Bonus Act provided a financial incentive to the states to control billboards within 660 feet of the IHS. States that signed up for the program received a “bonus” of one-half of one percent of the federal-aid highway construction costs on those segments of interstate highways where the outdoor advertising was “controlled.” Twenty-five states entered the program (some exited the program later for various reasons).
Under the Bonus Act, four categories or classes of signs were allowed without regard to zoning: “directional and official; for sale and on-premise; signs within 12 air miles of the advertised activity; and, signs giving information in the specific interest of the traveling public.”
The legislation was a financial blow to the outdoor advertising industry. The Bonus Act allowed the states to either remove existing signs under their police power or under the power of eminent domain. However, they were required to pay “just compensation.” In addition, if a state chose to pay compensation to an owner of a billboard/sign, the federal government provided 90% of the money.
Congress later adopted two amendments to the Bonus Act that allowed outdoor advertising along portions of the IHS. The “Cotton Amendment” exempted “any areas adjacent to part of a right-of-way, to July 1, 1956.” The amendment allowed billboards in areas adjacent to “interchanges, overpasses and along roads that ran parallel to an interstate.”
The “Kerr Amendment” permitted outdoor advertising in commercial and industrial zones of municipal boundaries in place on September 21, 1959 (the amendment’s date). In addition, outside the city limits, signs were permitted only in commercial or industrial zones as of the same date. This meant that inside city boundaries, outdoor advertising zoning was not frozen.
“Beautify the nation’s highways”
Lyndon B. Johnson became President of the United States on November 22, 1963 following the assassination of President Kennedy. Johnson’s wife was Lady Bird Johnson, and some thought she was a poor substitute for Jacqueline Kennedy.
But Lady Bird Johnson is perhaps more responsible for the lack of billboards on interstate highways than anyone else.
During President Johnson’s January 1965 State of the Union message to Congress, he mentioned a program to “beautify the nation’s highways.” That was followed by the President’s announcement on February 8, 1965, that he was going to call a White House Conference on Natural Beauty in mid-May. In the announcement, President Johnson made note that the Bonus Program expired on June 30, 1965, and that he intended to “recommend legislation to ensure effective control of billboards along our highways.”
On May 24-25, 1965, the White House conference met. It was chaired by Laurence Rockefeller.
Rockefeller was a son of John D. Rockefeller; he was a businessman, financier, philanthropist and conservationist. Among other things, he was involved in wilderness preservation, ecology and the protection of wildlife. Rockefeller’s “crusade” was establishing a conservation “ethic” in America. Lady Bird Johnson declared him “America’s leading conservationist.”
Among the recommendations made at the conference was one by the Roadside Control panel. It called for the U.S. highway statute to be amended to “provide that the grant of primary and interstate funds be conditioned with the requirement that the erection and maintenance of all outdoor advertising signs, displays and devices in all areas within 1,000 feet of the outer edge of pavement of the primary system and interstate system of highway be controlled.”
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965
On May 26, 1965 (the day after the conference ended!) President Johnson’s administration sent four draft bills to Congress that mandated highway beautification. Three corresponded to the eventual three sections of the Highway Beautification Act: outdoor advertising control; junkyard control; and highway landscaping. A “scenic roads” bill was the fourth.
U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph of West Virginia introduced the outdoor advertising control bill on June 3, 1965. It was designated as S.2084.
The legislation had several key features. If passed, it would have control over interstate and primary roads. The control zone was 1,000 feet. The penalty for a state’s non-compliance was that it would lose 100% of its highway funds. Exemptions were similar, but not identical to those made in the 1958 Bonus Act.
Another section of the legislation repealed and replaced the Bonus Act. However, its provisions still exist. They are enforced through agreements with the states promulgated by the Federal Highway Administration.
The legislation was assigned to the Senate Public Works Committee (which Sen. Randolph chaired). It quickly passed the bill and it was sent to the full Senate for a vote. On September 16, 1965 the bill was passed by the Senate by a vote of 63 to 14.
The legislation was assigned to the House Public Works Committee in the U.S. House. Its passage was also accomplished quickly; it was sent to the House floor on September 22, 1965. At that point, though, the bill was stalled, primarily because of pressure on House members from various special interest groups.
President Johnson had been a member of the House of Representatives prior to being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he rose to the position of Majority Leader in 1955 (a position he held until being elected vice president in 1960). Johnson was famous for “twisting arms” – he used the power of his office and his persuasive skills to push the House to action. The legislation passed the House of Representatives by 245-138 at 1:00 a.m. on October 8. Five days later (October 13, 1965) the House version of the legislation was passed by the Senate.
The final legislation controlled outdoor advertising (including the removal of certain types of signs) along the IHS and the existing federal-aid primary highway system. It also mandated that junk yards along interstate and primary highways either be removed or screened. Lastly, it encouraged scenic enhancement and roadside development.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was signed by President Johnson on October 22, 1965.
During its debate in Congress and afterward the legislation was nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill.” It was the First Lady’s pet project; she believed that “beauty, and generally clean streets, would make the U.S. a better place to live.”
From start to finish the process had taken less than five months.
There is a saying, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Passing this legislation was considered a success by many, and many men contributed to the effort. However, the success only had one mother, and that was Lady Bird Johnson.
Author’s note: This article is not meant as an attack on those who advertise outdoors or the outdoor advertising industry. It recounts historical events from a previous era. Advertising is an important source of information for consumers and under most circumstances should be protected.
Author’s note #2: During research for this article, I came across a number of historical photographs that may be of interest to readers of this article. Therefore, a FreightWaves Classics Extra of those photos is now posted on the FreightWaves website here.