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Mayor Walsh backs House bid to limit MBTA billboards

The Massachusetts House has passed a provision to reign in the MBTA's billboard building.
MBTA. mbta green line, mbta billboards, the t
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This train is making local stops.

That was the message from House budget-writers to the MBTA when it comes to erecting billboards and similar outdoor ad space that the cash-hungry T views as a revenue-generator and others see as an eyesore.

Through a provision in the roughly $41 billion fiscal 2019 budget the House passed last week, lawmakers have sought to rein in the T's billboard-building efforts that one lawmaker said have lacked judgment.

"I think they've taken the directive from the Legislature to go out and raise revenue a little aggressively without using any judgment," Rep. Dan Hunt, a Dorchester Democrat, told the News Service.

The amendment Hunt sponsored would require the MBTA to obtain local approval for billboards and other outdoor ad infrastructure. The amendment would impose similar requirements on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, although a department spokesman said there are no billboards on MassDOT land.

The T expects to haul in $35.7 million in advertising revenues in fiscal 2019 to help cover the roughly $2 billion expense of running its system of trolleys, trains, subways, buses and ferries. In fiscal 2018, the T expects to receive $3.5 million from billboards, and $25.8 million from other ad media, including outdoor digital panels and ads on buses and trains, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

"We owe it to the taxpayers and our riders to maximize own-source revenue," Brian Shortsleeve, the T's former chief executive, told the News Service. "Every dollar we generate in advertising is a dollar we don't need to raise in fares."

MBTA officials recently flirted with another fare increase, before putting it off until next fiscal year.

The MBTA intends to boost its non-fare own-source revenues to $100 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to Shortsleeve, who is now a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board that oversees the agency.

Hunt, whose district includes neighborhoods near the Red Line and Interstate 93, said towering advertisements make properties around them less desirable.

"Billboards around real estate reduce the overall value of that real estate by up to 30 percent," Hunt claimed. He said, "They're ugly, period. I mean, they're not going up in Swampscott."

In his effort to force local rules on the T's outdoor advertising, Hunt has the backing of Mayor Marty Walsh, who preceded Hunt in the Dorchester House seat he holds. A mayoral spokeswoman said Walsh supports the budget provision.

"This provision is not meant to act as a hindrance to MassDOT’s efforts to better utilize its property and buildings; however, as with all other public advertisements in the City of Boston, it is important for there to be municipal approval in order to ensure that the character of our neighborhoods is not diminished," Walsh spokeswoman Nicole Caravella said in a statement. "This language will help to ensure that all communities with individualized zoning requirements are able to partake in the process of approving billboards and advertisements that are erected on MBTA and MassDOT property."

Other billboards in Boston are required to receive approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals, according to City Hall. That board is appointed by the mayor.

Preservationists and the non-profit Friends of the Public Garden pushed back against the MBTA ad contractor's plans to install digital boards displaying ads and transit information around the Boston Common – which houses two MBTA stations – and the Public Garden, arguing the plans ran afoul of local rules, according to the Boston Globe.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph Boncore, the Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee, wrote in opposition to those plans, according to a transcript of a February hearing before the Office of Outdoor Advertising. The office subsequently approved the signs, according to the T.

Every MBTA billboard goes through a public process via the Office of Outdoor Advertising, according to Pesaturo, but Hunt contended there is "an inherent direct conflict of interest" with that process because the Office of Outdoor Advertising lacks an independent board and the director serves under Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

The T's plans for digital boards around the historic Boston parks as well as billboards erected near the JFK/UMass Red Line station prompted Hunt's bid to change the law, he said. There are no new T billboards near that station, according to Pesaturo.

Lawmakers often clash with the T, which is mostly under the control of Gov. Charlie Baker with a general manager hired by Pollack who is overseen by the control board, appointed by Baker. Lawmakers who passed a law giving the T more flexibility to outsource work have subsequently railed against that practice. The fiscal 2019 House budget denies the T's request for relief from a legal mandate to move employees off of the debt-financed capital budget.

In a presentation this year, T officials touted 225 digital panels installed to date and plans for another 700 panel installations by December. While the MBTA plans to expand its digital ad footprint, Outfront Media, which contracts with the T, has reported a decline in Bay State billboards in recent years.

There were 3,245 billboards in 2008, and 2,700 in 2016, the Boston-based company told the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure last year, writing in opposition to one of Hunt's bills.

"In 2013, the state itself rewrote the outdoor advertising regulations, adding numerous new restrictions and hurdles on the outdoor advertising industry," John Mahoney, director of real estate for Outfront wrote. "In fact most municipalities in Massachusetts have an outright ban on development of outdoor advertising."

Another Hunt bill (H 3910) seeking to subject the T to local billboard rules was given a favorable report by the Revenue Committee and sent to the House Committee on Ways and Means.