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Legislature to consider allowing digital billboards along Washington highways; hearings next week

Post by Kathleen Cooper / The News Tribune on Feb. 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm with No Comments »
February 5, 2013 10:01 am

Legislation that would allow digital billboards along state highways is bubbling up again in Olympia.

Both the House and Senate are considering changes to state law. Each body’s transportation committee has scheduled a hearing on the measures for Tuesday at 3:30 p.m.

Electronic signs aren’t allowed along state highways. The legislation maintains existing limits on signs, including keeping them in industrial and commercial areas. Digital signs also couldn’t have flashing or moving lights – the message would have to be static.

Clear Channel Outdoor's newest digital billboard is on the northeast corner of the West Valley Highway and SW 43rd Street intersection. Photo courtesy Clear Channel Outdoor
Clear Channel Outdoor’s newest digital billboard is on the northeast corner of the West Valley Highway and SW 43rd Street intersection. Photo courtesy Clear Channel Outdoor

Clear Channel Outdoor put up its newest digital billboard last week in Tukwila, on city owned property near the Southcenter mall. A company spokesman said five traditional billboard faces were removed in Tukwila before the digital sign went up. The company has nine other digital boards in Western Washington.

The bills this year are generally the same as those proposed for the past two years. The measures apply to the state highway system only, not to areas along interstates. They also don’t force municipalities to allow them. If a company wanted to build a digital billboard on a state highway within an incorporated area, that jurisdiction would have to approve before the state would issue a permit.

Opponents argue billboards, particularly digital signs, are visual blight. Scenic America, a national advocacy group, sued the federal government last week, arguing that an agency’s allowance of digital signs on national highways violates the Highway Beautification Act.

Supporters argue the signs expand public networks for emergency messages like Amber Alerts. The measures in Olympia state that digital billboard owners must coordinate with government to use the boards for such messages free of charge.

In 2011, the Senate approved the measure, but it died in the House.

Last fall, the City of Tacoma and Clear Channel Outdoor called a time-out on a federal lawsuit over the number and location of billboards in the city. The two-year “standstill” agreement was also intended as time for the city and the company to negotiate a billboard “consolidation” plan that would remove billboards from some parts of the city in exchange for allowing billboards in others.

Those negotiations haven’t begun, said Ian Munce, a planning manager for the City of Tacoma who is leading the city’s team.

“That bill would (seem to) affect what we’re discussing, but we haven’t started discussions,” Munce said Friday.

If state law changes to allow digital signs on state highways within cities and towns, that would “seem to open up some new locations” in Tacoma, Munce said. But it’s early.

“There is no proposal at this point,” he said.

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