‘Hell is real’ billboard bill could cost state $42 million a year
By John Cheves
FRANKFORT — Kentucky risks losing $42 million a year in federal transportation funds if lawmakers approve a billboard deregulation bill aimed at saving a “Hell is real” sign along Interstate 65, according to federal officials.
The state House approved House Bill 536, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow, earlier this week and the proposal has already received one of three required readings in the Senate.
The bill would exempt non-commercial billboards — defined as those that don’t advertise products or services — that are on private property from the state Transportation Cabinet’s permitting process.
Bell has said he is defending a LaRue County billboard declaring “Hell is real,” which stands across I-65 from a billboard advertising an adult bookstore in Upton. A judge ruled the billboard to be advertising and therefore subject to laws restricting the sign’s location and size. Bell said he disagreed with the judge.
However, the Federal Highway Administration sent a warning letter last week to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Under the federal Highway Beautification Act, Kentucky must keep “effective control of outdoor advertisements” or risk, as a penalty, losing some federal funds for a half-dozen transportation-related programs, wrote Jose Sepulveda, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration’s Kentucky division.
“At least at first reading, the bill seems to have the potential to affect (Kentucky’s) ability to remain compliant with federal requirements,” Sepulveda wrote. “The penalty would have been approximately $42 million if applied to the fiscal year 2009 federal aid apportionment.”
Kentucky’s share of the funds would be given to other states, he wrote. It would come from programs paying for road construction and maintenance, safety improvements, public transit and hiking and biking trails, he wrote.
The Federal Highway Administration in 1996 successfully discouraged California from a similar effort to exempt billboards that held non-commercial speech, he added.
Having been warned, the Transportation Cabinet opposes the bill and has forwarded the federal government’s concerns to the Senate, where the bill awaits committee action, cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said Thursday.
“At a time when we’re cutting back on road maintenance because of the budget, we simply cannot afford to lose more than $40 million in federal funds,” Wolfe said.
Senate Transportation Chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, said he has not yet reviewed the bill, but he is aware of it and the potential funding losses. Harris said his attention currently is focused on finalizing the state’s road-building plan and he cannot say what his committee will do with the billboard bill.
Environmentalists have also opposed the bill, which the House approved Tuesday on an 80-16 vote. Louisville attorney Paul B. Whitty has said the measure would have “catastrophic results” for Kentucky’s landscape.