Electronic billboards light up Times Square on Thursday, March 19, 2015 in New York. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

But why are Broadway and 7th Avenue now classified as national highways?

Reports from outlets ranging from the Washington Post to CBS-NYC stated Wednesday that the federal government is pressuring the New York City Department of Transportation to remove Times Square's largest billboards, or face a 10 percent reduction in funds for the state's federal highways.

Well, it wasn't exactly about "beautification"—though that might be the word that comes up most often in conversations around billboard removal. No, Times Square is among the world's few chosen spots where flashing advertisements are part of a sense of place.

Rather, the billboard-removal controversy was about a weird, regulatory hiccup that comes out of MAP-21, the wide-ranging federal transportation bill passed in 2012. MAP-21 included a dramatic expansion of the National Highway System. Now, virtually "all principal arterials"—including Broadway and 7th Ave—are "functionally classified" as national highways.

This means that they are eligible for more federal aid—and it also means they are subject to the same limitations that any federally aided highway would be. Those include the  Highway Beautification Act, which stipulates that, for any billboard placed with 660 feet of a highway or interstate's right-of-way, "the maximum area for anyone sign shall be 1,200 square feet"—which plenty of Times Square's flashing lights are well over.

In response to a request for comment, both the NYC DOT and the U.S. DOT denied that the federal government was in any way threatening to revoke funding. Doug Hecox, a public affairs representative with the Federal Highway Administration, stated:

FHWA has been working with the New York State DOT and the New York City DOT for nearly a year to correct this unintentional consequence of extending the National Highway System (NHS). At no time has FHWA asked NYCDOT to remove the billboards from Times Square or threatened to withhold federal funds. FHWA and NYSDOT have discussed the possibility of removing the NHS designation from specific roadways, and FHWA stands ready to act if we receive that request from the state.

An NYC DOT spokesperson wrote in an email that "The signage will not be removed," and that the agency is working with federal and state officials to "identify a solution in which signage will remain unchanged. Additionally, funding will not be affected."

But that does run contrary to the information available on the FHWA website, which includes a statement that, on the principal arterials now classified as national highways, "the penalty for not providing effective control of outdoor advertising remains at 10 percent of the funds that would otherwise be apportioned to the State[.]"

Whether New York faces funding cuts or not, the Times Square story raises other troubling questions about MAP-21's expansion of the NHS. Hecox says that no states other than New York have applied for exceptions for any of their primary arteries' new classifications. But there must be other billboards on primary arteries somewhere else in the nation that exceed the limitations put forth by the HBA; I can think of a handful in Los Angeles County. California and other states may one day be forced to enter into a bureaucratic tango to declassify certain roads.

So we here at CityLab are wondering about the rationale behind adding hundreds of thousands of miles to roads to the NHS in the first place, particularly in a time when there's so little money and political will around highway funding. The expansion raises the number of roads eligible for federal dollars, but without raising the actual dollars. Watch for updates on this story as more information comes in.

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