California drivers know them as the Amber Alert or traffic delay message boards. Most times, they are blank. Caltrans is toying with the idea proposed by Clear Channel Outdoor of selling advertising space on the state's nearly 700 roadside billboards.
"I think when you look at the state of California's transportation system and the need for repairs and rehabilitation to that system, we've got to figure out different ways of providing resources to accomplish that rehabilitation," said Will Kempton, Caltrans director.
Because high fuel prices are forcing Californians to drive less, the state is not collecting as much gas tax to fund road projects. Caltrans estimates ad space could bring in tens of millions of dollars a year.
But billboard opponents say California does not need more road distractions and visual pollution.
"This is absolutely the last thing we need. This is a bad proposal. It can compromise highway safety. It's a driver distraction," said Dennis Hathaway with the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.
Opponents also question how effective the message boards will be if they are used for something other than a true emergency.
"A lot of people who consider outdoor advertising a form of blight tune these out," said Hathaway.
But the lawmaker who wrote the bill creating the Amber Alert system says it is a great opportunity to upgrade the boards without taxpayer money.
Test pictures show color-coded traffic alerts and the actual pictures of the child and car involved in a abduction.
"It's a much better way to engage the public in regards to those Amber Alert signs and helping them know what they are looking for," said Republican State Senator George Runner of Lancaster.
The Schwarzenegger administration has already touted the idea with the U.S. Department of Transportation. California would need a federal waiver for what would be a new use of freeway signs.