Highway Beautification Act (1965)

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Highway Beautification Act (1965)

Craig J. Albert

Excerpt from the Highway Beautification Act

Federal-aid highway funds apportioned ... to any State which ... has not made provision for effective control of the erection and maintenance along the Interstate System and the primary system of outdoor advertising signs, displays, and devices which are within six hundred and sixty feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way and visible from the main traveled way of the system ... [or] ... located outside of urban areas, visible from the main traveled way of the system, and erected with the purpose of their message being read from such main traveled way, shall be reduced by amounts equal to 10 per centum of the amounts which would otherwise be apportioned to such State....

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-285, 79 Stat. 1028) was the first major environmental legislation of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society program, paving the way for the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. It sought to improve the appearance of the nation's roads by controlling the size, number, and placement of billboards and by screening off junkyards. Road construction and maintenance have traditionally been (with a few exceptions) state functions, but the federal government took an interest in road conditions when it began to subsidize a large portion of highway construction beginning in 1916. The act's strategy was to create a federal financial incentive for the states to take action.

The act followed decades of efforts by state and local governments to regulate billboards on their own by exercising their general police power. That power is the core authority of states to enact regulations promoting the health, safety, and welfare of their residents. Because the federal government has no police power, it needed to adopt legislation through its conditional spending power. Under that power, Congress may attach a condition to its spending. For example, the federal government can tell states they will be given funds for certain purposes only on the condition that they improve their highways. States voluntarily agree to enact the policies expressed in the federal government's conditions.

The act was the brainchild of the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Shortly after the 1964 presidential election, she assembled a conference to discuss ways to make Washington, D.C., more beautiful. Her efforts and her travels through the country led her naturally to question whether the aesthetics of daily American life could be improved. Billboard and junkyard blight were constant reminders of the work that needed to be done.

In the congressional debate over the issue, an important question was whether the regulation of roadside advertising would harm the interests of businesses and government because motorists would have less information about local services and attractions. Another question was how (if at all) the owners of billboards would be compensated for the business that they lost. In a compromise, Congress required the states that adopted the federal restrictions to pay the billboard owners immediately, in cash, with the payments being subsidized by the federal government.


The act has been a disappointment to those who wanted to reduce billboard blight. In fact, it has been a boon for the outdoor advertising industry. First, the federal government allocated only a tiny fraction of the funds that it promised for billboard removals, so few removals ever occurred. Second, the act prevented the states from controlling the billboards on their own through a mechanism called amortization, which offered a phase-out period in lieu of cash. Third, the outdoor advertising industry simply found other billboard locations. The industry recognized that its investment could not be lost, as governments were required to pay full cash compensation for removals. Fourth, the act led to billboards bigger than any previously seen and placed strategically outside the corridor regulated by the act. The act's secondary goalscreening junkyards from roadside viewhas largely been achieved.

See also: Highway Act of 1956; Highway Safety Act of 1966.


Albert, Craig J. "Your Ad Goes Here: How the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 Thwarts Highway Beautification." University of Kansas Law Review 48 (2000): 463544.

Cunningham, Roger A. "Billboard Control Under the Highway Beautification Act of 1965." Michigan Law Review 71 (1973): 12961371.

Gould, Lewis A. Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.

Highway Beautification Act

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HIGHWAY BEAUTIFICATION ACT. In his 1965 State of the Union Address, President Lyndon Johnson called for the creation of a Great Society—an ambitious legislative agenda to improve the quality of American life. Inspired by his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, President Johnson made highway beautification one of the signature themes of the Great Society and introduced legislation in Congress to preserve scenic beauty by removing and regulating billboards along America's highways. During congressional deliberations, the administration received support from urban planners, garden clubs, and a fledgling environmental movement. An alliance of advertisers, business owners, sign operators, and landowners, however, substantially weakened the proposal. Dissatisfied, President Johnson nevertheless signed the Highway Beautification Act into law on 22 October 1965, promising that it would be the first of many steps toward a more beautiful America.

One of the nation's first modern environmental laws, the act prohibited the construction of new billboards on scenic and rural federal-aid highways and required the removal of illegal billboards erected without proper permits. Billboards not meeting established standards were to be removed. To carry out these provisions, the act offered federal funding and financial incentives to the states. Despite limited amendments in 1975 and again in 1991 to strengthen the act, the act has so far failed to meet expectations. As one marker, by the turn of the millennium there were an estimated 450,000 billboards on federal-aid highways, compared to 330,000 billboards in 1965.

The act has failed for several reasons. First, exceptions built into the act itself limited its effectiveness. Second, by mandating that sign rights be compensated rather than amortized, Congress increased the cost of billboard removal beyond expectations. Eventually, federal funds for the program simply evaporated from the budget. Finally, the act imposed financial penalties for state actions that did not conform to the act's framework. In the end, the act failed because of loopholes, insufficient federal funding, and because the act hobbled state initiatives.


Albert, Craig J. "Your Ad Goes Here: How the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 Thwarts Highway Beautification." University of Kansas Law Review 48 (2000): 463.

Floyd, Charles F., and Peter J. Shedd. Highway Beautification: The Environmental Movement's Greatest Failure. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979.

Shannon C.Petersen

See alsoConservation ; Great Society .