UPDATE: Missouri lawmakers vote to allow digital billboards

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 | 5:41 p.m. CDT; updated 5:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 15, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Drivers on Missouri roads could see more digital billboards displaying messages that can be changed instantly under legislation given final approval Tuesday.

Current law allows digital billboards if they comply with all federal and state rules. The state Department of Transportation said there are already about 60 such signs throughout the state and about 1,900 are eligible to convert to a digital format.

The legislation, approved 142-11 by the House, would allow also non-compliant billboards to be converted to electronic format, as long as the signs complied with state and federal rules from Aug. 27, 1999. The MoDOT spokesman said that change could make about 3,400 more signs eligible to be converted to digital billboards.

The Senate approved the billboard legislation in March, so the measure is headed to Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon vetoed legislation last year that could have allowed more digital billboards, because the bill also contained provisions barring local governments from enacting total bans against billboards within their city or county limits. Those provisions are not included in the legislation passed Tuesday.

Bill May, the executive director of the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association, said that if the governor signs the bill, communities would be able to enact total bans. But he said advertisers might challenge such bans in court as violations of First Amendment free-speech rights.

"We feel that total bans on any form of speech — commercial or not— is going overboard," he said.

A spokesman for Nixon declined to comment about the bill.

May said Nixon might veto the measure if the Legislature can pass another larger transportation bill that currently is being negotiated between the House and the Senate. It contains similar provisions allowing for more digital billboards, but it would require 1,400 feet of space between digital signs and would require that state highway commission to review its rules on such signs.

May said that while more signs would be eligible to be converted to a digital format under the bill passed Tuesday, only about 100 to 150 signs would likely be converted in the next decade. The main obstacle is the cost — about $500,000 to convert both sides of a one-sign billboard.

But May said those new signs could help more businesses advertise more cheaply, because designing a digital image costs less than printing a traditional billboard canvas. The billboards also could be changed instantly to show up-to-the-minute gas prices or lottery jackpots, he said.

John Regenbogen, the executive director of the group Scenic Missouri, said his and other environmental organizations will urge Nixon to veto the measure passed Tuesday.

Regenbogen said that while digital conversions are currently expensive, costs might go down as technology gets better, meaning many signs could be converted.

"We're very worried about it. It would allow digital billboards to be increased in areas that already have a lot of clutter," he said.

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