In early July, my wife and I were in the Portland, Ore., airport awaiting our flight. We met a woman and introduced ourselves as residents of Columbia. She immediately replied, “I’ve just returned from Missouri, and I’m so glad to be home and not have to look at all those billboards.”
In recent years I have been aware of the growing number of billboards along Interstate 70, but I hadn’t thought that would be what out-of-state visitors would remember about us.
So last month as we traveled to Columbus, Ohio, and to Denver, I decided to monitor the billboards along the way. Traveling I-70 eastward toward St. Louis, there is hardly a mile that does not have at least one large billboard, and there are some portions of the route which can best be described as a “billboard jungle.” There are billboards almost on top of billboards! In comparison, we drove mile after mile in Illinois with no billboards blocking our view. In Indiana also, except for the urban areas of Terre Haute and Indianapolis, there were few billboards, and those were mostly near exits, giving travelers information about food, fuel and lodging. In Ohio, there were more billboards than Illinois or Indiana, but far fewer than in Missouri, and the larger ones were placed a considerable distance from the interstate and did not block the view.
Our trip to Denver took us through Wichita, Kan., via I-70 to Kansas City and Interstate 35 to Wichita. The difference between states was amazing! From Columbia to Kansas City, mile after mile was met with billboard after billboard blocking our view. Some portions of the “billboard jungle” were not only unattractive but also distasteful and inappropriate for family reading. They pollute the natural beauty of our state. In comparison, in Kansas we enjoyed the pristine vistas of prairie, crops and cattle; hills and valleys; trees and streams; and country homes and villages.
When former first lady Lady Bird Johnson died in July, media coverage focused on her leadership in beautifying our nation, especially our highways. One part of her efforts was to remove or minimize billboards. How sad that Missouri business and government leaders have chosen to reject her vision and leadership. How sad that our highways are cluttered and polluted with unattractive and sometimes distasteful and inappropriate billboard advertising. How sad that visitors from afar remember our state because of our billboard pollution instead of the natural beauty that abounds.
As a graduate of MU, I am especially dismayed that my alma mater has chosen to participate in this billboard jungle with a long series of monster billboards along I-70 en route to St. Louis. How sad that an institution supposedly dedicated to art and beauty should participate in this unattractive, distasteful pollution of nature’s beauty. How sad that taxpayers’ and contributors’ money is so misspent. Perhaps it is time for the UM System Board of Curators to reconsider this practice. And perhaps it is time for the Missouri legislature to rewrite the rules regarding highway advertising so this billboard mess can be removed. Then both Missouri residents and out-of-state visitors can once more enjoy the beauty of our state, and our guests can remember Missouri for more than its billboard pollution.