What has the Federal Highway Administration said about Off-premise Electronic Message Centers?

The 1965 Highway Beautification Act established federal guidelines for off-premise signs (billboards) located within 660 feet of federal highways. When “changeable Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS),” (typically called electronic message centers, or EMCs, in the sign industry), began to become more commonplace, individual states began to establish agreement (Federal/State Agreements — FSAs) with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Terms like “flashing,” “Intermittent” and “moving” were used in an attempt to describe the CEVMS.

In hopes of establishing more standardized criteria, the FHWA’s Office of Real Estate Services, on July 17, 1996  “issued a memorandum to Regional Administrators to provide guidance on off-premise changeable message signs.”

The FHWA states, “The policy espoused in the July 17, 1996, memorandum was premised upon the concept that changeable messages that were fixed for a reasonable time period do not constitute a moving sign (emphasis added). If the State set a reasonable time period, the agreed-upon prohibition against moving signs is not violated. Electronic signs that have stationary messages for a reasonably fixed time merit the same considerations.”

Then, more than a decade later, on September 25, 2007, the FHWA issued a second memorandum, called “Guidance On Off-Premise Changeable Message Signs.” It begins by saying “The purpose of this memorandum is to provide guidance to Division Realty Professionals concerning off-premises changeable message signs adjacent to routes subject to requirements for effective control under the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) codified at 23 U.S.C. 131. It clarifies the application of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) July 17, 1996, memorandum on this subject.”

It then states, “Pursuant to 23 CFR 750.705, a State DOT is required to obtain the FHWA Division approval of any changes to its laws, regulations, and procedures (emphasis added) to implement the requirements of its outdoor advertising control program. A State DOT should request and the Division offices should provide a determination as to whether the State should allow off-premises changeable Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) adjacent to controlled routes, as required by our delegation of responsibilities under 23 CFR 750.705(j).”

It then suggest standards for the timing between messages and the dwell time for messages.

“Based upon contacts with all Divisions, we have identified certain ranges of acceptability that have been adopted in those States that do allow CEVMS that will be useful in reviewing State proposals on this topic.

Available information indicates that State regulations, policy and procedures that have been approved by the Divisions to date, contain some or all of the following standards:

  • Duration of Message
    • Duration of each display is generally between 4 and 10 seconds – 8 seconds is recommended.
  • Transition Time
    • Transition between messages is generally between 1 and 4 seconds – 1-2 seconds is recommended.
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