By Yogesh Khandelwal and Dan Liggett
Advertising billboards, for better or worse, are part of the American landscape. Commonly seen from our many miles of interstates and national highways, billboards are considered an essential marketing tool of business. Some motorists feel they provide useful information, while others regard them as eyesores or unnecessary distractions from the nation’s natural beauty.
As usage and popularity of billboards began to escalate in the 1950s, the federal government took initial steps toward regulation. Signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958, commonly known as the “Bonus Program,” was an incentive for states to establish control of ODA within 660 feet of the right of way along interstates. States that did so received an additional one half of one percent of their interstate construction costs.
Whereas this legislation was the carrot, along came the stick. The next federal law made ODA controls mandatory and set punitive measures on states for noncompliance. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965 required states provide “effective control” of ODA along interstates and federal-aid primary routes within 660 feet of the edge of the right of way. Noncompliance meant that states could lose 10 percent of their annual allotment of federal highway funds.
Nearly 50 years later, HBA has left an indelible mark on the appearance and maintenance of the national highway system. The law has significantly impacted the operations of the department of transportation (DOT) in each of the 50 states. It required states to enter into agreements with the U.S. Department of Transportation and develop detailed regulations to ensure effective control was being maintained along all controlled routes. The law continues to have ramifications on the nation’s highway system.
State laws prompted by HBA regulate virtually every aspect of ODA programs along controlled routes. Effective control includes size, lighting, spacing and condition of ODA based upon “customary use” as determined by each state. Differences in the state laws have resulted in inconsistent ODA controls from one state to the next. Maximum size for sign facing, for example, varies from 1,200 square feet in one state to 642 square feet in another. Initially, states were required to regulate ODA within 660 feet of the right way, resulting in billboards being erected beyond the 660-foot controlled area. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1974 extended control beyond 660 feet of the right of way outside urban areas.
Achieving greater efficiency
Only recently have technological advances become available to help DOTs meet ODA requirements. Faced with limited budgets and staffs, more DOTs are implementing these advances to achieve greater ODA program efficiency.
As each state DOT can attest, operating an effective ODA program is complex and expensive. Costs of personnel, travel and equipment quickly add up. Offices and whole departments have been created within DOTs. Databases, ranging in age and capability, support computer files in various formats. Reams of paperwork fill file cabinets and records rooms. The costs can soar into the millions. Maintaining effective control with limited resources can create an administrative burden for some states, which results in increased program costs.
The original intent of a state’s HBA permit system was to allow states to charge enough for each permit and renewal to cover the cost of administering the statewide program. But the cost of permits and renewals has not been increased in most states to offset the administrative cost of maintaining effective control of ODA. Additional funding is necessary, but ODA control is generally not a top priority. ODA personnel at DOTs typically have collateral duties. Agencies would rather spend limited funds on road improvements rather than addressing ODA issues. With the enhanced capabilities it offers, technology is helping DOTs fill funding and manpower gaps, thereby lessening the administrative burden.
States are getting more advanced in their recordkeeping. They are getting better at inventorying their system. They are utilizing their laptops, using GPS and other innovations to produce a solid database of their ODA inventories. That is a relatively new development. It was only about five years ago that DOTs still maintained ODA records on paper. Today, a number of DOTs maintain a database to keep records on each sign. However, as is the case with many industries, transportation agencies are implementing more advanced technological solutions.
Central Web database
Upgrading to a Web-based system can help DOTs improve workflows and add capability for staff to access and input information into the system even when they are not in the office.
Substantial public resources go into processing and review of initial sign applications, renewal of existing sign permits, and inventorying and patrolling ODA. Much staff time is devoted to these tasks. Complicating matters for DOTs even further is the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) program, which will add control miles to the national highway system. And yet, prospects of increased funding remain dim at best.
Software with built-in automation can help streamline the permit application process, creating an end-to-end solution that can manage the task from submission of the application to the agency’s decision. In a number of states, the applicant must complete and mail the application. Absent the use of technology from the start, DOT staff is left to input the information into a database or review, process and file the paper copy. This can be time-consuming. Some states tell us that processing one new permit application can exceed three hours in-house personnel time, depending on discrepancies in the application.
Efficiencies can be realized with a Web-based, centralized system that supports online submission and download of documentation. In a paperless environment, DOT staff can make an initial review of such information as square footage, height, estimated location and other special specifications, such as lighting. Working from the state’s ODA regulations, the software can red-flag details in the application that may not pass legal muster. The software’s capabilities can also greatly reduce the staff time spent on non-conforming applications.
DOTs generally do not limit application reviews to office work. On-site inspections are routine in the process.
A centralized, Web-based database can enhance the quality of information and make the on-site review time well spent. The process can be accomplished more efficiently with the use of mobile devices that access the agency’s software system. This reduces time spent doing revisions. It can also reduce return trips if the field agent discovers the need for additional information once he arrives on-site. Pictures can be taken of the site location and uploaded into the case file in the software. Field inspector notes about topography, land use, buildings, or distances from other ODA or the nearest intersection or interchange can be added immediately. The use of voice-to-text can greatly reduce the amount of time spent preparing field notes.
GIS offers enhanced capabilities to determine whether a proposed billboard meets DOT requirements. State DOTs typically require the applicant of a new billboard provide details about location, square footage, height and more. It even can ask for a sketch of the proposed sign. But the applicant may not have to provide estimated spacing from the nearest sign(s), even though the state sets a minimum distance between signs.
A DOT inspector could use GIS mapping on-site to analyze the proposed ODA location. He could use mobile devices to check and upload various details about the site, including topography, vegetation and distance from the nearest interchange or intersection. The device would provide real-time feedback on the closest signs in any direction. Using location-based spatial analysis, the inspector can determine the exact location at which the sign should be placed to achieve compliance with the state’s minimum proximity to existing billboards.
Recordkeeping of previous inquiries about specific locations for billboards varies among states. Many utilize a database, while some still rely on staff members’ memory. Not having a centralized system of previous applications and inquiries for the same location causes unnecessary work which can easily be avoided.
Systems can be configured to have these types of checks built into the process and present users with information on relevant previous inquiries. Absent that, substantial staff time can go into checking a database for previous inquiries on certain locations. Location-specific searches can be accomplished quickly with Web-based software, accessing records not only on decisions made on previous inquiries and applications, but also the proximity of existing ODA.
In addition to new sign permits, the vast majority of states process renewals of those permits. Renewals are usually processed annually, all of them at a designated time of year or individually on the anniversary of when the permit was originally approved. In the second instance, the agency can be peppered with renewals throughout the year. Based on the volume of permits, it can cause significant challenges.
DOTs typically maintain information on active permits in a database, but the effectiveness of each system varies with age and capabilities. The quality of information also depends on updates of permit information. DOTs have to rely on each permit holder to keep the agency notified of any changes of information. Some states require it.
Renewals generally require less staff time than processing a new application. Collectively for all permits, however, the amount of time is substantial. A renewal might take an hour to process, but the DOT could have hundreds, even thousands of active and relocation permits filed. The time required increases further if there is no response to the agency’s renewal notice and the DOT has to take steps to contact the landowner, obtain information and, worst case, start action to have the sign removed.
Technology can also facilitate a comprehensive and flexible payment process. Once all information is input into the file for any particular sign, DOT staff can code the software to generate the essential permit renewal information – such as sign owner, history, cost, billing address and renewal date – automatically. The invoice can go out by mail or, if the agency requires it or the sign owner prefers, online. The software can also track payments. DOT staff time related to a renewal is limited to updating the permit information in the software. Providing the agency has been notified, changes to the file require minimal work.
Conducting ODA inventories
Manpower and resources also are concerns DOTs share in conducting regular, accurate ODA inventories.
Some states track ODA over many thousands of highway miles and have a formidable task in conducting regular inventories. Even states with smaller ODA programs have challenges. The same software used to do on-site reviews of new sign applications can be utilized for regular ODA inventories. With mobile devices and other tools, inspectors can check the signage seen from the roadway against the Web-based system. The inspector can learn instantaneously whether a new sign was erected according to required specifications. Unauthorized or illegal signs are identified. Using these tools, the DOT staffer can inventory ODA along many miles of applicable highways in an efficient manner. Information about illegal signs, such as pictures and location, can be shared electronically with agency officials for possible enforcement action, including removal.
Such information is critical in the preparation of reports required by the Federal Highway Administration in conducting a “process review” of a state’s ODA program. The outcome of such a review can reaffirm the state’s ongoing compliance with ODA requirements or put a multi-million-dollar scare into a state’s transportation budget.
When a DOT is at the point of adopting or upgrading software capabilities to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its ODA program, state officials should obtain as much information as possible about the alternatives each software provider proposes. Selecting the best system is definitely not a “one size fits all” proposition. Due to wide disparity among states regarding ODA requirements, number of affected miles, staff and budgets, it is important to obtain a provider that can customize the software solution to meet each state’s specific requirements and have flexibility to adapt to changes in regulations. Customization could include a system which can be easily adapted to meet additional agency needs.
With fiscal austerity pressures building at all levels of government, new technology could be the answer to taxpayers’ demands that more be done with less. In the case of complying with HBA, fortunately there are technological solutions for state DOTs charged with striking the balance between meeting the needs of our consumer-based economy and maintaining the natural wonders as seen from our national highway system.
Yogesh Khandelwal is President and Chief Executive Officer of geoAMPS. He is an engineer with a diverse background in technology across various industries. With more than 17 years of experience in database customization and implementation, he helps organizations implement standardized processes, bringing efficiency and optimization with project and asset management.
Dan Liggett is Communications and Public Relations Consultant at geoAMPS. He has an extensive background in the newspaper industry and media/public relations in public transportation and higher education. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Ohio University.