The California Senate on June 2 voted 19-17 against SB 1397, which would have permitted the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to seek federal approval to use commercial advertising on changeable message signs when they are not being used for safety or transportation-related messages.
California marks just one of several states seeking to contradict federal policy prohibiting commercial advertising on the right-of-way.
NATSO remains vigilant in its efforts to maintain the ban on commercializing the right-of-way, opposing various measures that would establish national precedent for significant commercial encroachment on highway rights-of-way purchased for public purpose.
Four years ago, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly 86-12 to reject a proposal to commercialize highway rest areas. This victory was a bipartisan show of support for truck stops, travel centers, and other private enterprises located outside the public right of way.
However, this big win did not kill the lure of commercialization. Indeed, although there is little threat of a complete repeal of the long-standing ban on commercializing rest areas, there are sporadic efforts throughout the country to gradually peel back the ban, as politicians seeking road money lured by false promises of quick-and-easy revenue.
NATSO continues to oppose measures that would be the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent. Once such efforts go forward, it becomes easier for similar, more expansive efforts to be implemented in the future
For example, during the House Transportation Committee’s consideration of the five-year highway bill known as the FAST Act that was enacted last year, two lawmakers proposed an amendment that would permit alternative fuel infrastructure (electric vehicle charging stations, natural gas infrastructure, etc.) to be located at highway rest areas. The amendment was ultimately withdrawn amid strong opposition from NATSO.
Also, earlier this year state senators in Maryland introduced a bill to sell naming rights for rest areas and welcome centers. Private bidders would pay for signs touting themselves; the state could nix sponsors it deemed offensive or disparaging.
Finally, California, Texas, and the U.S. Congress are considering proposals for commercial advertising on public traffic signs located on freeways. Current federal policy prohibits ads on the right of way, based on the reasoning that public roads purchased with public funds are intended for public purposes.
For decades, federal regulators have said “no” to various plans to bend the rules in order to allow commercial ads. In May, NATSO urged the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to withhold approval of a California proposal because it would establish national precedent for further commercialization of freeways.
“Waiving the current prohibition on commercial advertising on the right of way in California would erode current policies that protect the investment-backed expectations of enterprises located outside the right of way,” NATSO said in a letter to FHWA Administrator Gregory Nadeau on May 9.
Although the California Senate rejected SB 1397, the proposal could re-appear later in the legislative session.
Rep. Poe said Congress had spoken on the matter, referring to the Senate’s 86-12 vote in 2012 against commercialized rest areas and a House vote in 2015 to reject corporate-logo advertising on the right of way.
The congressman also warned that the state would have to referee “speech” issues, noting that hate groups have participated in the Adopt-a-Highway program after winning First Amendment claims in court.
In Congress, the House spending bill that funds transportation includes this curious mandate: within a year, the Federal Highway Administration shall estimate how much money states could generate by selling ads on the back sides of public traffic signs on the highway.
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