The Bush administration is asking Congress to ban new billboards along many of the nation's rural highways and put local governments in charge of removing the signs.

The proposed ban is contained in the administration's new $105.4 billion, five-year surface transportation bill and affects rural sections of the 150,000-mile system of highways considered of national significance.Organizations opposed to the spread of billboards have long said the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which aimed to remove many billboards, is ineffective and badly needs strengthening.

"We're trying to focus the federal effort on such billboards in rural areas where state land-use controls tend to be the weakest and aesthetic protection is the most important," said Dave Frederickson, director of communications for the Federal Highway Administration.

Sally G. Oldham, president of Scenic America, called the administration proposal "gutsy."

"The Bush administration is providing real leadership in stopping the spread of visual pollution in America," she said. "For 24 years the billboard industry has had its way with the visual quality of the American landscape. The Bush administration is clearly putting a priority on protecting America's visual environment."

But Kippy Burns, speaking for the outdoor Advertising Association of America, said her organization feels strongly that highway billboards are protected by language in the Constitution on property rights.

"This is going to cause a lot of discussion," she said.

Scenic America complains that under the current highway beautification program only 226 non-conforming billboards were removed nationwide between October 1989 and September 30, 1990.