UPDATE: Missouri lawmakers push to allow digital billboards along highways

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 | 10:20 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri House of Representatives transportation panel endorsed legislation Tuesday that could allow more billboards along Missouri's roads and highways to be transformed into digital advertisements with images that change daily, hourly or even several times within a minute.

Current law allows digital billboards if they comply with all federal and state rules. The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association says about 40 or 50 such digital signs are in the state.

The House committee voted 12-0 Tuesday to back a measure that would allow also noncompliant billboards to be converted to electronic format, as long as the signs did comply with state rules as they were on Aug. 27, 1999.

Choosing that specific date means the bill would cover double-stacked signs, which were outlawed after Aug. 28, 1999. It would also apply the measure to signs that are less than 500 feet apart. A law passed in 2002 requires billboards to be at least 1,400 feet apart.

Supporters of the measure said creating more digital billboards would allow businesses to advertise to highway drivers more cheaply. Bill May, the executive director of the Outdoor Advertising Association, said printing a traditional billboard sign can cost about $1,500. With a digital sign, a business can simply send a computer file to its advertiser.

A company could also change the sign's content often.

"It makes it amazingly less (costly)," May said. "And for almost any type of business, being able to change your (sign) instantly makes outdoor advertising far more valuable than it would be with a static sign."

May estimated that about 75 percent of the state's 8,800 billboards are out of compliance, meaning they can't be improved or changed. He estimated that only about 100 to 150 signs in Missouri might be converted to digital format in the next decade, even if the digital billboard measure passes. The main obstacle is cost. May said it costs about $500,000 to convert both sides of a one-sign billboard to digital format.

But John Regenbogen, executive director of the group Scenic Missouri, said even a slight increase in the number of digital billboards could be dangerous. He said the changing images could be more distracting to drivers than traditional billboards.

Current regulations say digital billboards in Missouri cannot have any continuously moving images, but the image on the billboard can change as often as every eight seconds.

The measure backed by the House committee has already been approved by the Senate and now goes to the full House. If the chamber approves it, the bill would go to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who vetoed similar legislation last year.

In his veto message, Nixon said the legislation would have barred local governments from prohibiting billboards, though it would have allowed them to put in place more stringent rules related to size, height, lighting and spacing than those required by the state.

The measure endorsed Tuesday would not put any restrictions on what ordinances local governments could pass.

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