Lady Bird's highway bill finally showing signs of life Money and clout now behind removal of non-conforming highway billboards, signs.

April 24, 1992|By The Allentown Morning Call

It has been 27 years since Lady Bird Johnson persuaded her husband to badger Congress into passing the Highway Beautification Act.

But not until now has the "Lady Bird Bill" come to roost.

In early March, President Bush took the act out of mothballs, providing funding to help tear down more than 114,000 signs andbillboards across America.

It was the first financial boost from the White House for highway beautification since 1983.

"This is a major breakthrough," said Sally G. Oldham, president of Scenic America, a non-profit group based in Washington, of which the former First Lady remains a board member.

"Our mission is to preserve the scenic environment. One thing is not having those ugly signs."

The federal government will pay $428 million to the owners of about 92,000 signs that were not illegal when they were built, but which no longer conform to local laws.

Another 22,000 signs that have neither a permit nor a license will be axed without compensation.

Congress cracked another whip by tying billboard removal with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

States that do not comply over the next two years will lose 10 percent of their highway funds.

The action, issued by Federal Highway Administrator Tom D. Larson, came at a time when billboard removal under the Highway Beautification Act had reached an all-time low.

Last year, the Federal Highway Administration reported that only 40 non-conforming billboards were removed along federal highways.

Billboard removals have been declining over the past 15 years, according to Scenic America.

A 1978 amendment to the Highway Beautification Act prohibited state and local governments from removing billboards without compensation.

In 1983, Congress dropped appropriations for billboard removal along federal highways, causing environmentalists like Scenic America to call it the "billboard protection act."

Then Bush signed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act last year, making $428 million available for billboard removal.

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