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.
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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.
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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.
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