More accurate count sought on Indiana billboards

The Indiana Department of Transportation is trying to get a better handle on exactly how many billboards sit along the
state’s highways after a federal agency found problems in Indiana and threatened to withhold $90 million.

The state
agency lists 12 permits for billboards along Interstate 65 in Lake County, for example, but the Post-Tribune of Merrillville
counted more than 60 along that route. The signs advertise businesses including fast food restaurants, adult bookstores and
wrongful injury lawyers.

Indiana’s current inventory includes about 17,500 billboards, although not all are active and
some boards may have more than one permit. State permits are only required for billboards visible from the interstate and
other designated roads.

The state agency is trying to get a more accurate count, said Robert Demuth, INDOT’s central
office permit manager.

The Federal Highway Administration found numerous problems in Indiana detailed in a report last
year, including billboards placed in areas prohibited by federal law, permits granted to blank billboards, size-standard violations
and spacing issues.

"Had an active inventory been in place, many of the issues discussed in this report may have
been avoided," the administration wrote.

In addition to fixing the issues found in the report, INDOT is trying
to update its billboard inventory to prevent further problems. The effort could cost more than $2 million, Demuth said, and
it’s unclear where the state could get that money. Training INDOT staff members to maintain the inventory also is part of
that cost, he said.

The federal agency has threatened to withhold $90 million from Indiana under a provision of the
Highway Beautification Act because of the perceived lack of billboard control. But the administration has so far not acted
to withhold any funding, Demuth said. There is no firm deadline for Indiana to fix its billboard problems.

INDOT is
working to correct the problems, which can’t be blamed on any particular party, Demuth said.

"There’s no smoking
gun, no one person, no one party, no one agency, no one group of outdoor advertisers," he said.

The Post-Tribune
asked INDOT for copies of all billboard permits in Lake and Porter counties. The agency provided copies of 115 permits for
billboards along interstates and several other roads, but the count seemed to be missing many advertisements. The state provided
30 permits for billboards along Interstate 94, but the newspaper counted nearly 150 along that route in the two counties.

A
newly updated inventory could help resolve those disparities.

"If we don’t get our hands on what the good inventory
is, we will not regain effective control," he said. "It is so key."

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