Why the Federal Government Wants to “Beautify” Times Square

Times Square in New York City - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Times Square in New York City – Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sometimes, perhaps too often, the government oversteps its boundaries. While politicians and talking heads are constantly drumming up fears of ‘big government,’ and insisting that private business interests should take precedence over increased regulation, there are definitely times when those fears are justified. New York City’s proposed ban on large soft drinks, for example, was a rather ridiculous law that limited consumer freedom and economic activity, even if it had good intentions.

Now, government officials are upping the ante and are once again taking shots at one of New York City’s most iconic economic engines — Times Square. To be specific, the federal government is targeting Times Square’s neon billboards, threatening to withhold as much as $90 million in highway funding if they are not taken down. According to a report from New York City CBS affiliate WCBS, the reasoning behind the federal government’s threats has to do with a 2012 restructuring of the highway system, putting Times Square as part of an arterial route of the national highway system.

Because of that, Times Square is being put under a set of rules from a 1965 law called the Highway Beautification Act — rules that limit the size of billboards along the highway system. The giant billboards and signs of Times Square are in violation of those limitations.

“The signs in Times Square are wonderful. They’re iconic. They’re not only a global tourist attraction, they’re important to the economy,” said New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, according to WCBS. “We’re not going to be taking down the billboards in Times Square. We’re going to work with the federal government and the state and find a solution.”

The reports from WCBS, noteworthy as they were, have been refuted to some degree. In an email to The Cheat Sheet, an official from the Federal Highway Administration said that the federal government has been working with local leaders to correct the issue, by removing the NHS designation from certain roadways. Clearly, none of the issues surrounding Times Square’s billboards were intended, and there is work being done to fix things, if need be. That’s very good news, considering the rather significant economic damage removing the billboards could do.

On the busiest days, nearly half a million people travel down to Times Square, with an average of more than 300,000 per day. The billboard space in that particular location obviously has some incredible value due to all of those visiting eyeballs, raking in tons of revenue to the billboard owners, and providing valuable marketing space for companies that can afford to advertise there. The Wall Street Journal says that the boards on merely one building, One Times Square, rake in $23 million per year from those advertisements.

A study from a few years ago also says that Times Square is an incredible money-making machine for the city overall, generating $1 out of every $9 in NYC, and supplying roughly 10% of the city’s jobs. In all, it adds up to about $110 billion every year in economic activity, The New York Times says.

And as for the signs? Well, they make Times Square what it is. Another study from 2014 says that 83% of visitors said that, “signs and advertisements add to the appeal of Times Square,” making it more colorful and exciting. The kicker? Sixty percent of respondents said they were “more likely to consider buying a product or service from a brand that advertises in Times Square.”

Those sorts of responses add a lot of value to the brands advertising downtown. Along with city officials, those companies are probably not willing to let the federal government come in and muck things up for them — all in the name of an antiquated highway law from the 1960s.

There is some good news, though, as a report from Business Insider says that the Federal Highway Administration claims they never asked the city to remove the signs in the first place. Not only that, but the FHA would also be willing to remove certain areas, like Times Square, from the Highway Beautification Act requirements — all the state of New York would have to do is ask.

Furthermore, it doesn’t look like the federal government has any intention of strong-arming the city to meet the requirements, as an FHA representative told Fox News they don’t plan on making the city do anything.

If the plan to remove signage were to actually go through — though we know it is not, per the FHA — the toll to Times Square, and all of the businesses involved, would have been catastrophic. It’s an example of one situation in which the federal government is proving to be malleable enough to adapt to given circumstances, which is a positive sign.

There may be a lot of lonely, desolate countryside in America, but if there’s one place that doesn’t need to regulated under a Beautification Act, it’s Times Square.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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