15
Mon, Jul

Metro’s Program To Blanket LA With Digital Billboards Nears Approval

LOS ANGELES

LA DIGITAL SIGNAGE - Who would ever guess that a program titled “Transportation Communications Network” would actually be a plan to construct 97 digital billboards across Los Angeles?

Some of these structures will tower 50 feet over eight different freeways, others will be built adjacent to proposed housing projects, and still others will shine into sensitive habitat areas like the Ballona Ecological Reserve. 

But, in fact, that is exactly what will happen if the Metro “Transportation Communications Network” (TCN) gains full approval from the Metro Board and the City of Los Angeles.

The Metro Board is slated to consider approval of the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the TCN program at its Dec. 1st Board meeting.  Never mind that the FEIR was released on Nov. 15, 2022 without any notice given to the public or to those who submitted comment letters, or who had asked Metro to send them TCN updates.  Never mind that the FEIR was released the week before Thanksgiving and is being considered the week after the holiday thus giving the public little time to review the document and do its due diligence.  Never mind that the Metro Board approved the TCN prior to the EIR process and thus did so without consideration of any public comment or the identification of project alternatives.   Never mind that the Metro Board has just revised its Dec. 1st Board agenda placing consideration of the TCN FEIR on the CONSENT calendar, which means that unless one of its Board members requests that it be removed and opened for committee and/or public comment and discussion, the FEIR will be adopted without the public having had the opportunity to comment or weigh in at all.

However, come to think about it, WE DO MIND.   

The Project proposes to place 62 digital billboards on 34 “freeway-facing” structures (most double-sided and all but one 672 sq feet in size for a total of 42,192 square feet of advertising space) towering up to 95 feet above grade, and 50 feet above the adjacent roadway.  An additional 35 “non-freeway facing” billboards will be erected on 22 structures from 30 to 60 feet above grade on 16 different commercial streets, for an additional 12,732 square feet of advertising space.  The public has no idea that our shared visual environment is about to be invaded by these proposed 97 digital billboards -- all visible from our busy congested roadways, and all dangerous, distracting signs with significant negative environmental impacts as well. 



The Metro TCN program has been advanced as quietly and as quickly as possible – with Metro and those behind the plan at the City taking great pains to avoid public notice and participation.  They have abandoned any notion of transparency in order to expedite approval of a program that will have long-lasting negative impacts on our city.

In short, this is unacceptable.

The timing of the release around the holiday and for a very limited time before a vote, is not only unacceptable, but it is also disrespectful of the public.  It defies any notion of public participation and government transparency.  How has Metro’s EIR consultant answered our many questions and concerns raised in comments submitted for the Oct. 24th deadline?  (The FEIR was written in a remarkably short period of time.  The number of public comments requiring response is indicative of Metro’s failure to adequately reach out to communicate about the TCN program and its EIR process.)

The Metro Board must be told to delay its consideration of the FEIR from its Dec. 1, 2022 Board meeting where the revised agenda now lists this as a “consent” item -- meaning not one word of discussion will take place and it will be approved en masse with a group of other items.  No public comment will be possible. 

Items on a consent calendar are generally non-controversial items that do not require much, if any, discussion.  To have public comment and Board discussion, one of the Metro Board members must make the request to remove the TCN (Item # 13) from the consent calendar.  Once removed, following discussion, the Board should delay consideration to a future date as Angelenos deserve adequate time to review the FEIR document (as do the Metro Board members).  Could it be that those behind this program seek to rush its approval with the current Metro Board members who will be leaving shortly because of fears that the new Board members may not support the program?


TAKE ACTION:  Tell the Metro Board that this item must be pulled from the consent calendar and rescheduled for a later date.  Comments to the Metro Board should be sent to:   [email protected] and must be received by 5 pm the day before the meeting.  Include the item number (# 13) and your position – “needs more consideration” and “against.”  
Public Comments to [email protected] should include the following points:

  1. a) Request Metro TCN (Item # 13) be removed from the Dec. 1st consent calendar
    b) Request a delay consideration of the Metro TCN FEIR until the public has been provided adequate notice and time to review the FEIR posted on Nov. 15 without public notification to interested parties. Most neighborhood councils will be unable to agendize consideration. 

In addition to opposing consideration of the TCN FEIR on December 1, the following issues are also relevant to the Board’s and City’s consideration and should be raised:

  • The placement of new digital billboards on Metro land does not comply with the City’s 2002 Sign Ordinance and may result in undermining the City’s authority to regulate all off-site signage in the future.  (The City has most recently approached use of the public right-of-way as being an acceptable exception to existing sign regulation and court rulings.  However, the Metro land proposed for the TCN program is not LA City right-of-way land.) 
  • The digital signs capture information from the electronic devices of all who pass thus invading our privacy, a right protected by the California Constitution.
  • Digital signage is designed to catch the eyes of all who pass.  Why would the City and/or Metro even consider introducing new elements to distract drivers at a time when Vision Zero goals become harder and harder to reach as roadway injuries and death increase? 
  • How can a program of this nature be considered without the review of transportation safety studies and attention paid to their findings?  The DEIR seemed to ignore all safety dangers by concluding that it was the City’s responsibility to address Vision Zero goals while Metro introduces distractions at locations already identified as being part of the City’s high injury network. 
  • Insufficient public benefits are offered in exchange for the program’s impacts and blight.  Removal of 200 old static billboards (a 2:1 ratio) is not adequate.  Cities across the country require far higher takedown ratios.  The LA City Planning Commission recommends a 10: 1 ratio for digital signs permitted in approved Sign Districts.
  • While stating that the TCN structures will not be installed on residentially zoned property, Metro completely fails to acknowledge that more and more housing is being built on commercially zoned land thus creating negative impacts on residential properties and all those who live in them.
  • The more outdoor signage permitted, the less value each sign has and the less revenue that will ultimately be generated per sign. Instead of allowing more and more signage with the associated negative impacts, why isn’t the City seeking to maximize revenues while reducing sign blight?
    IF the program moves ahead, it does not appear to comply with requirements to have an open bidding process for the program’s commercial vendor.  Metro appears to have selected a “partner” long ago in a process that does not appear to have been an open, competitive bidding process.  Where is documentation of a bidding process?  With City involvement, should there not be an RFP process that gives all (local) vendors the opportunity to compete?
  • If the City seeks to use its public right-of-way to generate ad revenues (as witnessed in the recent approval of the STAP street furniture program and current consideration of the IKE ad kiosk program), why would it allow for Metro to compete with the City and siphon off potential City advertising revenues?  Ad dollars are not unlimited.  More signs do not equate with more revenue.  What are the cumulative impacts of all the newly approved and proposed off-site advertising programs?

The agenda can be viewed here and contains the following information: 

To watch the Metro Board meeting online go to: http://boardagendas.metro.net
Listen by phone: Dial 888-251-2949 and enter Access Code: 8231160# (English) or 4544724# (Español)
Live public comment can only be given by telephone. The Board Meeting begins at 10:00 AM Pacific Time on December 1, 2022; you may join the call 5 minutes prior to the start of the meeting.
Dial-in: 888-251-2949 and enter English Access Code: 8231160# Spanish Access Code: 4544724#
Public comment will be taken as the Board takes up each item. To give public comment on an item, enter #2 (pound-two) when prompted. Please note that the live video feed lags about 30 seconds behind the actual meeting. There is no lag on the public comment dial-in line.

The Metro Board approved the TCN program back in July 2021, understanding that it would also require the approval of LA City in order to proceed and that an environmental review process was needed.  The program was developed with a plan to share ad revenues 50/50 with the City.  When a handful of Angelenos learned of the TCN and the pending approval at the time of Metro Board consideration, we were told by LA City representatives not to worry –  that there would be ample opportunity to review the program when it came before the City for review. 

While expedited consideration of the TCN at the Metro Board should be halted and public comment submitted to that effect, all must be made aware of the equally troubling process that has taken place at LA City.  While awaiting a public review of the TCN, the program moved forward in Council hidden from view.  A retrospective look back reveals how the City approved participation in the TCN without a single dedicated public hearing.  To date, the measure has been treated solely as a Budget item – avoiding public discussion of impacts on traffic safety, aesthetics, environment, energy, biological resources, etc. 

The TCN was apparently first considered by the City as part of the 2021-22 City budget.  At the Dec. 6, 2021 meeting of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, there was a presentation of a Dec. 3 report from CAO Matt Szabo listed on that agenda as as “ADDENDUM TO THE 2021-22 SECOND FINANCIAL STATUS REPORT Council File No. 21-0600-S110.”  IF one were to have gone to that report and read through it, one would have found that the TCN program was Item number 5 which noted that “The recommendations in this report comply with the City’s adopted financial policies in that the proposed changes have been presented for review and approval of the Mayor and the City Council, and instructions to negotiate the MOA for the TCN Program was considered during the course of the annual budget development process.”   The report requested that the Council, subject to the approval of the Mayor:

“Amend Exhibit H Recommendation H.14 in the 2021-22 Adopted Budget, to authorize the City Administrative Officer to finalize and execute a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for the development of a Transportation Communication Network (TCN) Program with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), subject to the City Attorney approval as to form.” 

The Budget and Finance Committee approved the report on Dec. 6 and the Council approved on Dec. 8 with the provision that the City’s share of CEQA costs would be limited to $1 million if the TCN program was not implemented.  The Mayor signed onto the report and Council action on Dec. 11, 2021.

The CAO’s report sought authorization to finalize and execute a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for the development of the TCN with Metro for a 20-year term.  It noted that the motion did not obligate the City to move forward with TCN implementation but did establish the revenue sharing framework, and among other items, acknowledged that the implementation of the MOA was conditioned “upon the City enacting an ordinance that allows off-site advertising to be displayed on the TCN structures through the duration of this MOA and subject to any design and development standards, including any mitigation measures.”  The report also notes that while the TCN Program “is expected to generate annual revenue for the City,” “the amount of revenue to be derived from the TCN Program for the City cannot be determined at this time.”  Nonetheless, the City authorized signing the MOA.

Since the TCN requires LA City to adopt an ordinance permitting the program, there will be an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed ordinance when the Planning Dept. has released its draft.  While this comes very late in the process, at this point, it is the best chance that the public will have to influence the City’s implementation of the TCN should Metro move forward with approval.  

(Barbara Broide is President of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Blvd. Homeowners Association. She is also a Board Members of the Coalition for a Scenic Los Angeles.)