Billboards get a free ride along Missouri roads. It’s time they pay their fair share | Opinion

“Pollution is not limited to the air we breathe and the water we drink; it can equally offend the eye and ear,” wrote former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. We of course endure a certain level of pollution ranging from smokestacks to tailpipes. The same may be said of billboards that prove offensive to the eye.

We live with these ubiquitous commercial posters as the cost of living in a competitive world, where advertisers hawk their goods and services ranging from personal injury lawyers to dog food. Yet, while we impose reasonable costs and restrictions on power plants and cars that emit their pollutants, we give the outdoor commercial placards — in effect, hitchhikers along our roads — a free ride.

A freeloader is a person — or in this case, a corporate entity — who takes things from others without paying for them or giving anything in return. Indeed, the billboard industry imposes its commercial icons on our hospitality, yet pays next to nothing for the benefit it receives from our highways that bring consumers’ eyes to them.

Compare television and radio advertisers who pay for the airtime that delivers consumers’ eyes and ears to see and hear their commercials with roadside advertisers who receive gratis a steady stream of consumers who view these commercial boards as they traverse our roadways.

Billboards’ free ride runs counter to how we traditionally finance the maintenance of our roads: Those who use or profit from our highways pay in proportion to the benefit received by paying equitable user fees. For cars and trucks, user fees are paid via gasoline taxes.

Our Missouri legislators have long proved an aversion to raising taxes. Nonetheless, they recognized the value of user fees to build and maintain our roadways. Two years ago, they increased our gasoline tax assessed per gallon — a rate not raised for more than 20 years, which could no longer keep pace with the rising costs to maintain our roadways. The rate jumped from 17 cents per gallon with annual incremental increases until the tax reaches 29.5 cents per gallon in 2025 — a 74% increase.

Meanwhile, the billboard advertisers who profit from our highways pay a paltry $100 per year for a permit fee to plant 672-square-foot poster boards that hawk everything and anything — except an uncluttered view of our Missouri farms and Ozark hills. In fact, billboards do not even pay sales taxes on their ads, since they sell a service rather than a product. Their free ride along Missouri roadways explains their proliferation.

Interstate 70’s corridor between Kansas City and St. Louis bears a staggering 3.64 billboards per mile, or 2.5 times the rate of billboards per mile as compared to the seven states that border Missouri. Many of these commercial placards that litter our roadway are legally nonconforming but remain grandfathered, standing ad infinitum — some of them double-stacked and closer than 1,400 feet apart. Perhaps we would see fewer mammoths mounted on mono metal poles if this visual clutter paid its fair share for the highway that delivers consumer traffic to them.

If life imitates art, then legislation imitates money. The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association’s lobbyists have derailed attempts to impose equitable user fees by spending more money on lobbying than on the poster board glue and the electricity that illuminates their beacons of blight. This result doubly punishes drivers who must endure the visual pollution of billboards while footing the bill that brings consumers within view of the commercial stream of consciousness from which billboards profit.

The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association once distributed a glossy, self-promoting brochure entitled “Sharing the Great Outdoors with America,” proving that the easiest thing to share is something that belongs to everyone. It is time that the freeloading billboard industry contributes to the costs of our highway maintenance. A reasonable user tax on billboards would provide MoDOT and construction contractors with much-needed funds to provide the public with better and safer roads.

Paul W. Lore is an attorney in the St. Louis area. He previously lived in Kansas City for 13 years.