I’ve said it before and will say it again: there is money in billboards!

Next time you are traveling on a long stretch of highway across the country, keep your eyes peeled for a unsightly blank sign, usually hidden in the brush. On a recent trip to Omaha, I must have spotted at least 10 abandoned signs lining the road.

These kinds of boards were likely built many years ago and are no longer used, sometimes due to poor placement or a business that just couldn’t hack it. Some clever entrepreneurs have been buying these signs off of the land owners for a dirt cheap price, fixing them up, then selling them off to advertisers.

Fun fact: according to CRE University, the most effective signs are the EXIT NOW boards that are thrown up right before the exit to reach the business, and these get you the big bucks.

Outdoor advertising is enticing to many, with the one-time payment and minimal upkeep, but a huge return on investment. You can potentially build a small board for around $4,000, and sell each side for about $2,000 a year if your reach is decent. So I read up on the subject in hopes of finding some helpful information on how to possibly purchase or build my own sign.

How do I get a permit? Where can I actually build a sign? How big can it be? My new arch nemesis: the Highway Beautification Act.

It was put in place by everyone’s favorite president, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1965. Since then, this law has been amended too many times than I care to count.The HBA allows only certain signs:

  • Directional and official signs.
  • On-property signs – sale, lease or activity
  • New signs in commercial and industrial areas consistent with the size, lighting and spacing criteria in the State/Federal agreements.

Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, was the biggest supporter of this approach to clear the highways of all things ugly:

Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.  -LB

What’s uglier, a billboard or roadkill? A dead bird, Lady Bird? Should we regulate that too? Squirrel justice!

It’s understandable, though. Signs everywhere would not be a pleasant sight and would probably make leftists cry over corporate America ruining Mother Earth. But who said there would be that many boards?

First of all, the HBA isn’t even working very well. Scenic America reports that there are at least 425,000-450,000 billboards on America’s federal highways today. That grows by roughly 5,000-15,000 billboards each year.

The HBA allows billboard operators to come onto the public highway right-of-way and clear-cut public trees to improve the visibility of their billboards. And environmentalists, billboard operators clear-cut publicly owned trees at least 1,000-2,500 times a year in 24 states. How is that making the Earth more beautiful?

Scenic America reports:

Because of inadequate permit fees, public subsidies to billboard operators total more than $6 million each year. Billboard operators pay no road user taxes, tolls, or fees, and the public has paid more than $250 million to remove nonconforming billboards.

What if there was an effective way to control highway signs without all this government garbage? Oh, wait— the free market!

Billboards only work because there aren’t that many of them, relatively. Maybe this is because of the HBA, or maybe because of supply and demand. If there were too many billboards, the impact of each would be smaller.

Imagine a constant line of signs along the road for miles and miles. McDonalds! Taco Bell! A SPAM museum? Pickle factory tours? Too much stimulation! Nobody would advertise with boards if there are too many competing.

On Highway 5 in middle of nowhere Minnesota, which I took almost every day between my farm and Dairy Queen, there is one company that dominates the advertising business throughout the entire stretch of the 45-minute drive: Lamar.

It’s a big name, up there with Clear Channel and CBS. On my commute every day, I’d look at all the open land along the highway where Lamar signs haven’t popped up yet, and imagine the benefits of me throwing up a sign.

Remember how EXIT NOW boards are the highest paying and most effective? As of now, all the businesses between Norwood and Victoria have no choice but to use Lamar for all their outdoor advertising needs. That’s where I come in. I just have to make sure to follow the regulations. However, that can be tricky. For example:

No new signs can be erected along the scenic portions of state designated scenic byways of the Interstate and federal-aid primary highways, but billboards are allowed in segmented areas deemed un-scenic on those routes.

Deemed un-scenic? By who?

Then, I came upon the Bonus Act:

The Bonus Act provided an incentive to states to control outdoor advertising within 660 feet of the Interstate highway system. States that volunteered for the program would receive a bonus of one-half of one percent of the Federal highway construction costs on segments of Interstate highways controlling outdoor advertising.

But then it was amended:

The first amendment was known as the “Cotton Amendment”, which exempted any areas adjacent to part of a right-of-way, acquired prior to July 1, 1956. This allowed billboards in areas adjacent to interchanges, overpasses, and along roads that ran parallel to the Interstate.

These seemingly arbitrary regulations are a disincentive to entrepreneurs.

Without regulation, people could easily start a business and sell ads for 75 percent of what Lamar is charging. Then they would have to lower their prices too, and landowners would take home a nice 20 percent cut of the profits. Everyone wins, except Lamar’s monopoly.

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