Federal funding fears lead PennDOT to reassert authority over Philly highway billboards

By Bill Holloway

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently announced it will reassume its authority to regulate billboards along National Highway System (NHS) routes in Philadelphia. PennDOT, which had allowed the City of Philadelphia to regulate billboards along NHS routes since 1974, was concerned that a lack of effective control of outdoor advertising along the routes as mandated by the Highway Beautification Act, would result in a 10 percent reduction in the amount of federal highway aid that the state receives.

Although PennDOT’s decision came on the heels of a widely publicized decision by the Philadelphia City Council to allow “urban experiential displays”—three-dimensional digital billboards with displays larger than 1,500 square feet—it was rooted in a multiyear review of local billboard regulations and existing signs to determine how well they conform to federal guidelines.

A 2013 report by Sarah Richards found that only 32 of 183 billboards along highways in the city had valid permits and were in compliance with all pertinent regulations. Sixteen percent of the billboards were out of compliance with zoning regulations, 6 percent violated sign area regulations, 13 percent violated height limits, 36 percent violated spacing requirements, and 64 percent were either unpermitted or had a questionable permit that was revoked, expired, or inconsistent with the parcel’s signage.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.