Why are there so many billboards in Missouri?

Oct 11, 2013

At least you can still see the trees.
At least you can still see the trees.
Credit plainsart / Flickr

This week CoMo Explained tries to answer that question all your out-of-state friends keep asking you: "What's with all the billboards around here?"

Ryan Famuliner knows the experience well: a friend drives into town to hang out for the weekend and the first thing he says is "hey, what's with the billboards advertising sex shops and strip clubs?"

Trying to explain this to outsiders is "one of the first embarrassing things as a native Missourian," says Famuliner.

And it's not just perception problem. Missouri simply has a lot of billboards on its highways. In the year 2000, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDot) said the state had an average of 2 billboards per mile on controlled highways. Kansas had 2 per mile. Arkansas had 0.9. Billboards are dense here, and it's noticeable.

So how did it happen? It goes back to the history of highway beautification across the country. When we expanded the highway system in the 1950s, a federal program kicked some extra federal transportation dollars to states that voluntarily regulated outdoor advertising. Missouri declined.

Billboard construction proceeded at good pace through the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually the state did loosely regulate the size and spacing of signs along highways. Municipalities would sometimes enact stricter ordinances in building codes. St. Louis had a cap on the overall number of billboards in the city, for instance. A number of these ordinances were challenged in court and overturned.

In 1997, municipalities finally won their right to regulate outdoor advertising, but the anti-billboard crowd wasn't finished yet. In 2000, a ballot initiative was introduced that prohibit the construction of new billboards on highways, and prohibit the moving or replacement of old ones. It was, essentially, an emergency brake on outdoor advertisers and the companies who owned billboards around the state fought back furiously. The initiative was narrowly defeated by about 50,000 votes.

Another salvo in the anti-billboard fight came straight from the legislature. A bill in 2004 explicitly targeted all billboards advertising sex shops in Missouri (the media at this time hilariously took to calling them "sexy billboards"). The bill passed, but was immediately challenged in the courts. A young Jay Nixon, then Attorney General for the state, defended the bill until a federal court ruled it was unconstitutional.

These days, the billboard industry seems to be on the offensive. Two pro-billboard laws have been proposed in the last two years and one passed in 2012. The issue of "sexy billboards" seems to have been tabled. Now, the issue is which billboards can be turned into digital billboards, and what happens to old billboards that are removed for highway construction. Both are of serious concern, especially with the ongoing project to widen I-70.

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