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Published: Wednesday, 10/1/2003

State pondering the legality of rest-area ads

Could billboards soon be sprouting up on rest-area buildings along Ohio's main highways? State lawmakers say yes, but federal regulators may have a second opinion.

The biennial budget bill passed by the legislature during the spring and signed June 26 by Governor Taft includes a provision giving the Ohio Department of Transportation authority to sell advertising space in highway rest areas.

But ODOT is checking to make sure it doesn't step on any federal toes before it follows through, and a federal official said new ads on major roads - the ones most likely to have rest areas - probably would run afoul of a 38-year-old highway beautification law.

“We are looking to see if it is something we can do,” Brian Cunningham, an ODOT spokesman, said yesterday, adding, “We're very cognizant of not trying to commercialize the roadways.”

Rest-area advertising “was not our idea,” Mr. Cunningham said, and Dwight Crum, press secretary for House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) confirmed it was in an amendment Mr. Householder introduced at constituents' behest.

“He was out on the road, and some people mentioned it as an idea to raise money,” Mr. Crum said.

Any revenue would go into a roadside rest area improvement fund, which was established in the same piece of the state budget bill that allows ODOT to sell advertising. The law provides $250,000 in each of the budget's two years to start the rest area improvement fund.

But while advertising could raise cash for rest-area upgrades, it could cost Ohio an undetermined chunk of its federal highway aid - which during fiscal 2003 exceeded $900 million.

Federal law doesn't forbid Ohio or other states to do as they please with their highways, but compliance is “a condition for the receipt of federal funds,” said Richard Henry, the Ohio division right-of-way officer for the Federal Highway Administration in Columbus.

In the matter of billboards, Mr. Henry said, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 forbids advertisements to be erected on or within 660 feet of the right-of-way of interstates and other primary highways, except in industrial or commercial areas within municipalities.

Inside rest areas, he said, commercial activity is limited to vending machines and references within otherwise neutral “information centers” to businesses that provide travel services like food, lodging, and vehicle fuel and repairs.

ODOT conceivably could sell ads for rest areas not located on interstate highways or other major roads that are part of the “controlled” system without risking its highway money, Mr. Henry said. But he conceded that he could not think of any rest areas on such relatively minor highways.

Mr. Crum said he didn't know if the potential conflict with federal regulations had ever come up during Mr. Householder's consideration of the advertising amendment, which was adopted without debate.



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