Understanding the wisdom of a recent Department of Transportation enforcement action removing illegal campaign signs from road rights of way is as easy as taking a drive across town. As the Aug. 21 primary election approaches, signs are sprouting alongside Southcentral roads like bird vetch. And although they're not as difficult to remove as invasive weeds, the signs are considerably worse about cluttering the visual landscape — and sometimes dangerously obstructing drivers' view.
Alaska has a particularly restrictive set of laws that govern advertising on or near the roadway. A voter initiative passed in 1998 set severe limits on campaign signs and other billboards. As DOT officials remind campaigns in a statement issued each year, "Alaska laws apply to signs on public or commercial property either within 660 feet of the state's public right of way or beyond 660 feet and legible from the main traveled way. These signs may be removed by the state at the expense of the property owner."
It's rare, however, for the law to be enforced, and campaigns and property owners flagrantly flout the restrictions, placing signs the size of a mattress or larger well within the right of way on major thoroughfares. Sometimes this is merely an annoyance for drivers who dislike seeing ads during their commute, but in some cases, large signs near intersections or access to businesses can impede drivers' ability to see oncoming traffic or other cars about to enter the roadway. Typically, the only signs removed by DOT are ones about which they receive many complaints, and even then, tight budgets mean quite a few problem signs will remain. Too often, those providing and placing the signs exploit that lack of enforcement.
This isn't to say that the law should always be enforced to the letter; indeed, few laws are. But in its crackdown on illegal signs thus far, DOT officials haven't flagged every sign legible from the roadway, as they could. Instead, they have wisely opted to focus on ones that are obvious offenders and those that pose potential hazards, much as state troopers don't try to pull over every speeding driver, only those most likely to present safety hazards. What's more, although DOT has the option of performing the removals at property owners' expense, they have opted instead to use their own funds. So far, they estimate a cost of $3,600 for sign removals. If one fender-bender is prevented, the expense of sign removal will have been more than justified.
There has been predictable grousing from campaigns whose signs have been removed, and even allegations that Gov. Bill Walker has orchestrated the sign removal campaign to disadvantage his opponents. Mudslinging is par for the course during campaign season, but these attacks don't hold water. It's not as though Walker's campaign somehow benefits unduly from everyone having to play by the same rules. And from a practical perspective, arguing that signs should be placed more directly in drivers' field of vision probably isn't politically wise for campaigns — the voters, after all, were the ones who overwhelmingly approved the sign ban in the first place.
There's no need for stringent sign enforcement that unfairly restricts Alaskans' rights to engage in political speech. But the DOT sign removal campaign has so far balanced the right to campaign for candidates with Alaskans' rights to get around Anchorage safely and not be unduly barraged by billboard-style signs close to the road. Who can take issue with that?