Housing Complex

Wayward Billboards Could Cost the City $15 Million

The federal aid routes that FHWA cares about.

You thought D.C. had a sign problem on the Verizon Center? That's not the half of it.

During the hearing on sports mogul Ted Leonsis' request for flashy electric displays, Councilmembers mentioned that the District's sign regulations were undergoing a comprehensive review. For good reason: The Federal Highway Administration has warned the District that it's way out of compliance, and could lose 10 percent of its federal transportation funding—which comes to $15 million annually—if things aren't brought up to snuff.

The FHWA's report, issued in March, outlined the issues. Back in 1965, Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act, which set standards for outdoor advertising. The District was supposed to create procedures for how the law was to be applied, but it basically opted not to.*

The feds started bugging the District Department of Transportation about its failure to enforce the law in 2009, with little action. To make matters worse, billboards not in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' inventory of 32 permitted signs kept popping up on the avenues designated as "federal aid" routes; FHWA inspectors found 11 where they shouldn't have been.

It's unlikely D.C. will actually lose money over this—the working group tasked with overhauling D.C.'s antiquated sign regulations are about to issue its recommendations, and they'll become rules. I'm also confident that DDOT will take care of those illegal billboards with all due haste (though they asked for an extension past the report's original 30-day deadline).

But as to the underlying question: Part of me is impatient that it took a federal browbeating to get the District to pay attention. The other part of me wonders, does it really matter that there are billboards far out on New York Avenue NE? Sign sticklerness is one of my least favorite forms of regulatory overload; unless you're using the revenue to avoid restoring an historic building, I find outdoor advertising to be just part of the visual cacophony that comes with cities. Right now, of course, that's not a fight D.C.'s able to have.

* CLARIFICATION, June 26: A previous version of the post said that the District had declined to promulgate rules; in fact, it only failed to write a procedures for implementation.

  • crin

    It's not a sign issue. It's a money issue. DC took it and didn't hold up their end of the bargain. If DC wants billboards, they shouldn't have/shouldn't be taking Fed money that limits against billboards.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L


    I thought the issue was exactly the opposite. DC doesn't want billboards but the Feds specifically allow them.

    Lydia, can you clarify?

  • Sammy

    DC used to basically prohibit billboard signs. Then some local fixer types persuaded the city council to allow "temporary" signs on behalf of their clients. That created a hole big enough to drive a, well, billboard, through. Add to that the usual DC government culture of favoritism, look-the-other-way and bureaucratic incompetence. DC should do the right thing for city beautification and just ban them.

  • crin

    The FHWA report LD linked to was regarding the federal Highway Beautification Act. The HBA is about keeping highways scenic/beautiful partially by limiting or excluding advertising/billboards. The FHWA report is critical of DC government because DC regs had a loophole for special signs and FHWA held that too many special signs had leaked through the loophole and were undermining the Highway Beautification Act. There's probably some federal money used as leverage or at stake.