Back in 1965, Congress adopted a Highway Beautification Act that was supposed to remove unsightly billboards alongside the nation's highways. While more than $200 million was spent to remove signs, the law has been mostly a failure. There are now more billboards than before and they are bigger.

In its haste to beautify, Congress let many loopholes slip into the 1965 law. The measure also wiped out 50 years of court decisions regarding signs, and left much of the authority in the hands of states and local governments, many of which either did not take action or actually frustrated the purposes of the law.For example, using loopholes in the law, many sign owners were able to construct new signs just short distances from where they were paid to take down old ones. The result has been proliferation of billboards.

In a 12-month period between 1989 and 1990, only 226 non-conforming billboards were removed. Yet in the 1986-88 period, an estimated 47,000 new signs were erected along U.S. highways. There are now about 425,000 billboards along interstate and primary highways.

Under the 1965 law, states and the federal government were supposed to jointly work out limits on billboard sizes, roughly the same as under older laws - about 300 square feet and no taller than 30 feet. But outdoor advertisers got into the act and size limits were set at 1,200 square feet with no limit on height.

Utah has been one of a handful of states that have made good-faith efforts to keep the spirit of the federal law, but there are still billboard problems - a clutter that some critics describe as "visual pollution."

In his five-year, $105 billion transportation program, President Bush is taking fresh aim on the billboard issue, seeking to ban new billboards along major rural highways that are part of the 150,000-mile system considered to be of national significance.

The project may not fare any better than before, especially since local governments would once again be in charge of removing the signs. But at least the Bush initiative is a recognition that the 1965 law has been weak and ineffective and needs to be strengthened.

Though the outdoor sign industry is certain to oppose the plan, the scenic outdoors must not be allowed to become a total captive of garish billboards that obstruct the view and distract motorists.