Hunt bill calls for public input on T’s digital billboards

As the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and residents butt heads over the possible conversion of existing MBTA billboards to digital displays and the proposed installations of smaller digital screens by MBTA stations, legislation is moving forward to ensure that any digitization plans will be subject to local approval processes.

State Rep. Dan Hunt of Dorchester filed a bill last September that would change a few things about how the T manages its billboards. Even if the displays are on state land, the legislation would require the MBTA or its representatives to come before the community and have a discussion about local benefits, whether that be in donations to neighborhood groups or the removal of existing billboards in compensation.

“This would make sure that if any paper billboard has to go digital, they have to go before the general public, and we as a community approve each one before it goes forward,” Hunt said.

As it stands, the Office of Outdoor Advertising reviews such proposals, but the T, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and the state highway division are not subject to local zoning.

“Any other agency would have to go through legislative approval,” Hunt said. “I’m concerned they’re going to aggressively prioritize digital billboards, but it’s not like private industries, where they have gone to communities and have offered to take down 20 billboards and give linkage [funds] or community benefits, like $100K a year for local charities and sports groups.”

The MBTA awarded a six-month contract to Outfront Media to take on management of the 125 roadside billboards on T-owned properties, Outfront announced in a March 1 press release. One of the reasons for a lawsuit ending the relationship with previous billboard manager Clear Channel Outdoor was the transportation authority’s desire to study the feasibility of digital billboards.

As the Boston Business Journal reported, the MBTA’s billboard stock comprises traditional roadside displays that are “becoming increasingly obsolete,” according to the MBTA lawsuit. The billboards are limited in their advertising reach, as they display between one and three promotional images — depending on whether the panel is papered with a single ad or is a tri-fold model that cycles through three displays — and brought in about $2 million annually. Digital boards, however, maximize their revenue generating potential with more ads on a rotation.

Although Outfront did not elaborate on its intentions for the billboards in the release, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email on Tuesday that “there are no plans to convert any of the Outfront contract’s static billboards.” Outfront has also applied to install several “digital urban panels” – essentially large television-sized screens – at MBTA stations that would include train information and advertisements placed outside the station-heads.

Members of the public, local elected representatives, and non-profits offered forceful objection to four proposed downtown panels at a Feb. 14 meeting, the Beacon Hill Times reported.

In the March 12 meeting of the Fiscal & Management Control Board Meeting, transit officials discussed the urban panels as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 preliminary budget. They expect advertising revenue of $6 million “with expansion beyond the current plan for Digital Liveboards and Digital Urban Panels.”

Both types of billboards would be subject to Hunt’s legislation (H.3910), which was reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Revenue during the last session and referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

It would limit the MBTA and its contractors, asserting that “advertising appearing on the exterior of the facility, including billboards, signs and other advertising devices, shall be consistent with local ordinances or by-laws.”

This would offer communities some leverage, said City Councillor Frank Baker, who has worked with Hunt on the billboard issue. Several of the Outfront billboards sit on prominent sites along Interstates 93 and 95.

“We’re trying to make sure that they come in front of us and they come to us,” Baker said. “The T runs through our neighborhoods, and I just think that billboards can tend to be a blight, so if we’re going to deal with them, we should get some sort of benefit from the private companies coming in.”

A parallel can be drawn between the MBTA legislation and bills filed by Rep. Hunt, former state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, and Rep. Nick Collins to impose local zoning rules on developments on UMass Boston-owned property. These bills each seek to hold empowered state bodies to local standards.

These state discussions are a different matter than ones already underway in the city. Dorchester civic groups have collectively opposed approving new billboards or digital conversions until a Boston policy is in place.

Eileen Boyle, with the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, noted that from the Polish Triangle down to Port Norfolk, “we are concerned about billboards, both conversions of billboards, and new billboards. It’s just not necessary. I commend Dan Hunt and Frank Baker for their work.”

Hunt feels that the Office of Outdoor Advertising Board (OAB) review is not adequate protection, though the public can testify at meetings. Some of the board staff ultimately report to State Secretary of Transportation and MassDOT CEO Stephanie Pollack, which poses a potential conflict if they are juggling the state’s mandate to increase revenue against their stated responsibility to protect the integrity of public space.

Hunt’s bill also adds Department of Conservation and Recreation parkways to the category of “public park or reservation.” Billboards could not be constructed closer than 500 feet from any public park or reservation or obstruct the view of a historic place without public approval, and they could be limited to preserve open space.

“Digital signage is currently subject to a public process through the OAB and the T will carefully review the legislation should it become law,” Pesaturo said.