Feds Block Sale of Sponsorships on Traffic signs

Federal regulators blocked a plan to sell commercial corporate sponsorships of official traffic signs in Texas.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) pitched a proposal to auction one-third of the space on electronic freeway signs to corporate sponsors, which would look like this:

The Tx-DOT proposal required federal approval, which was denied.

“The FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) is unable to approve your request at this time based on the applicable statutes and regulations,” the federal agency said in a letter to Tx-DOT dated June 7, signed by Mark P. Kehrli, director of FHWA’s Office of Transportation Operations (click here for letter).

Proponents cast the concept as an innovate public-private partnership to generate revenue for government and deliver timely information to motorists.  Opponents warned against encroachment of commercial advertising on the public right of way and the government’s entry into the advertising-sign business.

Texas Congressman Raised Objections

Congressman Ted Poe, R-TX, opposed the sale (click here) of commercial sponsorships on traffic signs, citing three reasons:

  1. Public right of way was bought with public funds for public purposes
  2. Bending rules to allow corporate commercial sponsorship ads would invite further commercialization of the right of way
  3. States don’t need the added burden of refereeing “speech” disputes

Courts have upheld the Ku Klux Klan’s right to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, which acknowledges those who pick up litter.

In April, federal regulators issued a letter opposing commercial advertising on the back sides of overhead traffic signs (click here).  This clearly worded statement of agency position quoted the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices: “Traffic control devices or their supports shall not bear any advertising message or any other message that is not related to traffic control.”

Broader Debate Over Commercialization

Highway signage is part of a broader debate about commercialization of the public right of way.  President Trump’s infrastructure plan calls for privatizing highway rest areas, to help pay for transportation.

In 2012, the US Senate rejected privatized rest areas 86-12.  Groups representing restaurants, truck stops, convenience stores, and gas stations oppose commercialization of rest areas as harmful to private enterprises located near highways.

When Congress created the Interstate Highway System (IHS) in the 1950s, community leaders feared that local businesses, jobs and tax bases would shrink as truck drivers and motorists bypassed their cities and towns. As a result, Congress prohibited commercial services, such as food and fuel, at interstate rest areas.


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