California bill would tap highway message signs for road revenue

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 4/29/2016

The Golden State faces a $5 billion annual shortfall for highway system repairs and maintenance. Funds for local street repair are short another $2 billion annually. As a result, state lawmakers are getting creative to come up with revenue enhancement options.

One California Senate bill could raise $200 million annually for road work in the state via the state’s use of changeable message signs.

The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee voted 6-2 to advance a bill to permit the California Department of Transportation to sell commercial advertising on changeable message signs located on or near state highways. However, Caltrans would first be required to conduct a pilot project to see how drivers respond.

California has more than 830 changeable message signs, or CMS, in operation.

Sponsored by Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, SB1397 requires the demonstration project to use at least 120 changeable signs at locations determined by the highway department.

Opponents say more messages on the changeable signs could result in drivers “tuning out” important alerts such as Amber Alerts and traffic safety messages. They say drivers could also be distracted by more messages.

A bill analysis acknowledges that expanding the use of changeable signage for advertising “may increase distracted driving, reduce safety on California highways, and reduce the effectiveness of safety messages.”

Caltrans officials say they would try to keep the signs blank “whenever possible” to help prevent distracted driving.

If fully implemented, it is estimated the use of public-private partnerships could raise at least $200 million each year for road maintenance and repair.

Huff said the road revenue effort is a win-win scenario for California taxpayers.

“It won’t cost taxpayers a dime,” Huff said during a recent hearing on the bill. “It will be funded through a public-private partnership. And the existing Caltrans CMS network would be upgraded to provide state of the art responsive, high-definition information capability for enhanced statewide emergency and traveler information.”

The bill awaits further consideration in the Senate before it can advance to the Assembly.

If passed by the California Legislature, the Federal Highway Administration would still be required to approve the demonstration phase before the program can be initiated.

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