Wednesday, October 1, 2003

New moves by state could lead to more - and bigger - billboards

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Billboards could start appearing at Ohio highway rest areas now that lawmakers ended a ban on commercial advertising at the roadside stops.

But before the Ohio Department of Transportation starts selling ads at the state's 148 rest areas, the agency is trying to figure out whether signs would violate the U.S. Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which limited the number of billboards along American roads.

"We're looking to see if there's a federal prohibition against that," ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham said Tuesday. "It's still early in our analysis for us to be able to do that."

The change was put in the state budget bill this year, giving ODOT authorization to sell advertising at rest areas.

The old law banned commercial activity for the safety of travelers and to be consistent with national policy. The only exception was vending machines.

Under the budget provision, any profits from ads in rest areas would be placed in the newly created Roadside Rest Area Improvement Fund. The state has not estimated how much money it could earn from ad sales.

Richard Henry, a Federal Highway Administration official who administers U.S.-financed highway programs in Ohio, said using rest stops for roadside advertising is probably illegal.

But Ron Storey, a Renton, Wash., businessman, says he operates a program in Washington and Oregon that sells advertising in 35 rest areas under contracts with both states.

"It's a revenue-producing mechanism," Storey said. "It has been allowed by federal law. It's very legal."

Gov. Bob Taft did not ask lawmakers to lift the ban against commercializing rest areas.

Dwight Crum, a spokesman for House Speaker Larry Householder, said the speaker added the amendment based on conversations with constituents.

State transportation officials also have drafted regulations that would allow nearly 11,000 billboards on private property along Ohio's highways to sprout temporary extensions that could increase their size up to 20 percent.

Billboard operators call such extensions "cutouts" or "embellishments," and typically charge extra for them because they make signs more eye-catching.

Cutouts extend beyond the outside dimensions of a sign, which now cannot be larger than 1,200 square feet on rural highways. For example, a hotel might have a cutout of a city skyline extending beyond the regular billboard.

ODOT's Cunningham said the agency wants to make sure it can regulate the extensions and prevent temporary permits from becoming permanent.

But Meg Maguire, president of Scenic America, an organization that lobbies for tighter billboard controls, called the proposal to allow cutouts an "outrage."

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