Who goes first?

Nevadans learn about a state program from D.C. instead of from Carson City

Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley is one of several state lawmakers who said they should have been informed of a highway billboard program before the federal government was told.

Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley is one of several state lawmakers who said they should have been informed of a highway billboard program before the federal government was told.

Photo By Dennis Myers

To see a sample floral billboard, click here.

Community leaders and legislators said they don’t understand how the state’s floral billboard program reached such an advanced state without the public knowing about it.

The Bush administration in its closing days has approved an application from the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) to put vegetative or floral billboards on interchange slopes of Interstate 15 in Clark County and Interstate 80 in Washoe County, with expansions of the program likely if it works satisfactorily in the Gibbons administration view ("Growing billboards,” Jan. 8).

The billboards are made of flowers planted on interchange slopes in the shape of corporate logos or similar commercial advertising matter.

Commercial messages have been banned from federal highway rights of way since the enactment of the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, and it is not known whether the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will succeed in getting around that law with legal instruments called “waivers” that Congress has not approved.

Legislators were dismayed at learning of the proposal from officials in Washington or in the news after the program had already been conditionally approved at the federal level.

Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said she had never heard of the proposal. In an interview with the RN&R, she asked more questions than she answered, saying, “Please excuse my basic questions, but never having heard of it—!”

She also said, “I have heard absolutely nothing about this. … It sounds bizarre.”

Members of the legislative environment committees said they were also in the dark. Senate Natural Resources Committee chair David Parks said that because the proposal breaches longstanding practice so sharply, he would like to have known about it:

“Certainly it’s a substantial change in the way things have been done for many years, for decades. … And I can certainly see where there would be potential conflicts that could arise.”

Assemblymember David Bobzien of Washoe County, a transportation committee member last session and a natural resources committee member this time, said he knew nothing about the proposal. “It seems like a substantial enough departure from how we do things that I would hope that the Legislature would have an opportunity to more fully vet the concept. … This seems like quite a leap for something to not go through the Legislature as a policy question.”

Assembly Transportation Committee chair Kelvin Atkinson said, “Obviously as a chair of Transportation, anything that is affecting our roads, highways, etc., etc., I think out of common courtesy I would be apprised of it. But I’m not surprised, though.”

That was a common reaction, one local official saying that her experience was that the Gibbons administration “holds information closer than most.”

Doug Smith of the Scenic Nevada organization in Reno said, “This is really a big change from everything we’ve always been told about what we could and could not do on the right of ways as far as the federal highways are concerned. … We had no idea it was coming.”

Republican legislators were more careful about speaking by name, but were also troubled.

“I don’t want to take the administration on over this, because we are probably going to have to tangle over bigger things before the [legislative] session is over. But we have to carry water for the governor, and we can’t protect him and his people if they don’t keep us informed.” This lawmaker used the term “weary” to describe his reaction to what he called a chronic communication problem in the last couple of years.

One GOP lawmaker as well as Democrat Bobzien recalled that the governor, shortly after taking office, proposed selling water rights under the state highways, an idea he dropped when research indicated it would produce little money and because the state’s ownership of those rights was uncertain.

“This is the kind of thing that seems to appeal to him, so I’m not surprised that NDOT launched this,” the Republican said. “The secrecy is also something that I think probably starts at the top of the pyramid.” (See “Jim Gibbons watch” at left.)

Gibbons spokesperson Dan Burns said Gibbons would have no comment before his message to the Legislature this week: “Anything that the governor has to say about budget issues or financial issues … he’ll say on Thursday.”

Alphonse and Gaston
Legislators talked of the need for state officials to “have their ducks in a row back here” before they went to Washington in order not to be embarrassed if the Nevada Legislature doesn’t go along after the proposal received federal approval.

A spokesperson for NDOT, Scott Magruder, said just the opposite, that NDOT needed Washington first before they went to the Nevada Legislature: “Why even take it to the Legislature unless the feds have approved it?”

The problem for the Gibbons administration is that there is a longstanding Nevada protocol on creation of federal/state programs that favors the state capital over the national capital, a protocol that NDOT officials apparently—and surprisingly—knew nothing about.

In the 1960s, when state governments were getting huge amounts of assistance from the Great Society, Nevada state lawmakers discovered that governors, particularly Gov. Grant Sawyer, could create new state programs that the Legislature had never approved. By the time the Nevada Legislature, which meets only every other year, came into session, programs were up and operating and had their own funding and constituencies. The lawmakers laid down the law and created protections against that happening, though they tended to be designed to guard against programs actually funded by the feds, which the floral billboard program is not.

One legislative staffer said, “I suppose it’s not to be expected that the governor knew of this practice, but I’m surprised people in NDOT didn’t. Still, we’ve had a lot of turnover.”

But even when the FHWA gave its approval to the project on Dec. 5, there was still no announcement of the billboard plan made by NDOT. When, on Jan. 5, the RN&R requested copies of all news releases about the program, NDOT replied that there had been none.

NDOT spokesperson Magruder challenged the notion that the proposal is a breach with current practice.

“With the logo signs we do the same thing—gas, food and lodging,” Magruder said, referring to the small signs near off-ramps that post the corporate logos of nearby businesses. But Kevin Fry of the D.C. lobby group Scenic America said that distorts the purpose of those off ramp signs:

“It is true that there a few small exceptions to the no-commercialization rules … but they are designed, in part, to reduce the number of billboards along the highway, not increase them. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices … which governs all signage on the nation’s highways has very specific rules about which businesses can use them, the size of the sign and the size of the logos, their distance from each other and interchanges, etc. They are meant to be unobtrusive and to offer an alternative to billboards or other ugly or distracting displays. They also cannot carry any kind of marketing message and only carry easily recognized logos. … The purpose of these signs, and the similar tourist-oriented directional signs … is to provide information for the motorist seeking specific roadside services, not to serve as marketing opportunities for corporations … and to construe otherwise is a cynical—in fact, inverse—misreading of the law.”

NDOT seems to be treating its proposal as principally a highway and a revenue issue. Others say it is a safety and a viewscape issue.

In Washington, lobbyist Fry said Nevada’s own highway signage rules cast doubt on the safety of floral billboards: “Nevada’s rules on … directional signs… actually prohibit them within 2,000 feet of an interchange, which is an implicit acknowledgement of the safety issues associated with placing signage on the right of way near complex driving environments like interchanges and intersections. … For us, it’s more than a money issue. We see it as a question of both fundamental principle and public safety, as well as yet one more attempt to surrender every square inch of the public realm to outdoor advertising companies.”