Why Milwaukee-area Drivers are Seeing More Roadside Ads Lately
refueling station road sign along a highway

Why Milwaukee-area Drivers are Seeing More Roadside Ads Lately

Have you noticed more highway “logo signs” advertising restaurants and tourist attractions lately? It’s not just you.

If it seems like you’re seeing more signs advertising gas stations and burger joints along local freeways, you’re right. And still more are on the way.

A recent change in Wisconsin law authorized an increase in the blue signs that tell drivers where to exit to find food, fuel, lodging and tourist attractions. It’s already affecting the Milwaukee area, although state Department of Transportation officials are at a loss to say how many new signs have been installed.

Officially known as “specific information signs,” they’re also called “logo signs,” because they display various business logos. Logo signs sprung up after 1965, when the federal Highway Beautification Act restricted unsightly billboards along the nation’s roads. As an alternative, states allowed roadside businesses to advertise on more modest blue signs that grouped their logos under such headings as “food” and “gas.”

In Wisconsin, businesses pay $30 a month to be listed on signs along freeways; $10 a month to appear on small signs on exit ramps, showing the direction and distance to each business; and $20 a month for listings on signs on other state or federal highways, says Mike Pyritz, DOT southeast regional spokesman. That adds up to $400,000 a year, and the contractor running the program, Wisconsin Business Logos, uses that money to maintain the signs, Pyritz says.

For years, state law limited logo signs on freeways to one before each exit, and prohibited them in Milwaukee County, to avoid overloading drivers with too many signs. But in 2016, the Legislature raised the limit to four signs for each exit, the maximum allowed by federal guidelines, and repealed the ban on signs in counties with populations of more than 500,000.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) added those changes to legislation that became Act 360. She says businesses in her district asked for the higher limit because reconstruction of I-39 was cutting the number of Janesville exits from three to two, and they didn’t want the number of logo signs reduced. At the same time, Dane County’s population had passed 500,000, and the DOT wanted to drop the big-county sign ban to avoid removing Dane County logo signs, says Derek Punches, an aide to Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon).

In Milwaukee County, new logo signs are appearing in suburbs. Federal and state guidelines require at least 600 to 800 feet between blue signs and other (usually green) highway signs, and urban areas are already packed with so many green signs that they don’t have space for logo signs, Pyritz says.

Approaching the North Shore’s Brown Deer Road exits from I-43, three new logo signs have been erected for northbound traffic, and a Milwaukee County sign has joined the previously existing Ozaukee County sign for southbound traffic. Signs also have been approved, but not yet installed, on I-41, approaching exits for Mayfair Road, North Ave., Burleigh St. and Capitol Drive, all in Wauwatosa, Pyritz says.

No figures are available for the rest of southeastern Wisconsin. Pyritz says businesses have asked for more logo signs, “but nothing that Wisconsin Business Logos could directly correlate to Act 360.” However, it’s not clear what “directly correlate” means, because multiple exits in Waukesha, Ozaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties now have more than the one blue sign allowed under previous law. A request for clarification went unanswered.

The increase doesn’t bother Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin, the local affiliate of Scenic America. Both the national and state organizations are focused on strengthening the federal Highway Beautification Act and combating new developments like digital signs, says Gary Goyke, the state group’s president. Compared with commercial signs, Goyke says, the logo signs are “not as offensive … and they’re not blinking.”



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.