DEADLY DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS - If Metro and any other short-sighted City Councilmembers, under President Krekorian’s leadership who support the Metro Transportation Communication Network program (TCN) get their way, LA streets and freeways will soon be occupied by 86 giant digital billboards with their changing advertising messages rotating every 8 seconds for all those passing to see. The problem with that, of course, is that in the case of passing drivers, their distraction places all neighboring roadway users at risk with our most vulnerable roadway users, pedestrians and bicyclists at greatest risk.
California’s Office of Traffic Safety defines distracted driving as “anything that takes your eyes or mind off the road.” Even messages created to promote traffic safety result in distraction and accidents.
As proposed, TCN digital billboard locations are planned for freeway facing and non-freeway facing (i.e. City street) locations within the City including, but not limited to, the 2, 5, 10, 90, 110, 101, 118, 170 and 405 freeways. Many of these are planned for areas near freeway intersections where vehicles are required to change lanes and merge into traffic. Bad idea. Really bad idea. The TCN’s proposed Supplemental Use District (SUD) includes parcels in the communities of Atwater Village, Boyle Heights, Downtown, Echo Park, Encino, Glassell Park, Granada Hills, Hollywood, North Hollywood, Pacoima, Palms, Sherman Oaks, South LA, Sun Valley, Sylmar, Van Nuys, West LA, and Westchester -- spread over 22 different community plan areas.
Detailed maps of the proposed TCN Supplemental Use District, the draft ordinance, and more information can be found on the Planning Department’s project webpage at Planning4LA.org/plans-policies/metro-tcn.
16 of the 22 proposed non-freeway facing billboard structures would be located on streets designated as part of the City’s High Injury Network. Another really bad idea. Metro attempted to address the perceived insanity of these planned installations by saying in their environmental document that placement of these structures would not preclude the LA Dept. of Transportation from installing mitigations to address any impacts. Such a response does not dignify further comment, and yet it stands as a rationale for allowing these signs to proceed. If the program moves forward, the City must remove all signs proposed adjacent to streets on its High Injury Network.
Billboards are proposed to be located adjacent to sensitive uses including the Ballona Wetlands Reserve, Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve, and landmarks including historic Union Station. The proposed ordinances override existing community plans, supplemental use districts, transit corridor plans – all plans developed with significant community participation. Only existing HPOZs are protected. The ordinances will change existing codes to accommodate implementation and compromise protections we citizens have enjoyed for 20 years since the sign ban was adopted.
The history of this program is not a pretty one. Its origin in Metro, with its sole source vendor All Vision LLC, was always as an advertising program at the expense of public safety. The branding as a “communication network” was a shrewd one to disguise the program, or, in other words, putting lipstick on a pig (no offense to pigs). If the City and/or Metro seek to improve or build a transportation communication network, they can do it WITHOUT digital billboards.
Metro could not proceed with the TCN without the City granting permission and creating a mechanism to allow the program because it fails to comply with the City’s 2002 Sign Ordinance. The Sign Ordinance bans new billboards and allows them ONLY in Sign Districts that are contiguous in nature. Metro’s plan puts billboard structures across the City from Sylmar to South LA at non-contiguous locations and thus is not permitted. This program requires numerous special accommodations to bypass City code.
The City’s path to this Metro TCN program was a hidden and duplicitous one, with former Krekorian chief of staff Areen Ibranossian leading the lobbying effort on behalf of the Metro program, first as an individual and later as lobbyist with his company Chief Strategies.
On December 6, 2021, under Council File 06-0600-S110, a CAO report 0590-00098-5217, dated December 3, 2021, relative to an addendum to the Second Financial Status Report (FSR) for Fiscal Year 2021-22, was submitted to the Council Budget and Finance Committee for consideration. In that report, was a subitem that referred to entering into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Metro related to the TCN program. It was never posted as an agenda item. (But even if it had been listed on an agenda, who would guess that any program referred to as a Transportation Communication Network was really a digital billboard advertising program?) Under then Budget and Finance Committee Chair, the Budget and Finance Committee approved that report, forwarded it to Council and the Council swiftly approved it; a contract with Metro was issued. All this accomplished without any public notice or participation. While there was a clause in the MOA that allowed for the City to later decide against participating, the City would be on the hook for a $1 million penalty payment to Metro.
That $ 1 million penalty could predispose the Council to approve the TCN. It diverts consideration from the negative impacts of the program to an over-simplified debate over whether to pay Metro $ 1 million or to accept what might be a source of revenue. The main problem with that oversimplification, is that it bypasses the many negative impacts and bad precedents established should this program proceed.
Further in pure business terms, the program is a BAD deal. In 2002 when the City was considering the details of its new Sign Ordinance, there was an outdoor advertising industry proposal to remove 2500 billboards in exchange for the right to erect 50 digital billboard structures along freeway locations in the City. The resulting takedown ratio would have been 25 ad faces removed for each billboard face erected. And yet the Council flatly rejected that proposal, refusing to open our freeways to new billboards and adopted a ban on new billboards. Yet, today, under President Krekorian’s leadership, the Council will consider a considerably worse deal.
The current TCN takedown offer from Metro was removal of 200 static signs of unknown size in exchange for freeway-facing digital billboards. The City Planning Commission has recommended to Council that the City’s takedown rate for new digital billboards installed in Sign Districts be a minimum of 10 square feet to one square foot of takedown for any new digital billboard removals for any digital billboard erected (10:1). The Metro TCN is not a blight reduction program and was never intended to be one. This is a way for Metro to convert outdated static signs to digital status which is another concept that has been rejected by the City and should be continued to be rejected by the City.
From the financial side of things, the Planning Department is unable to answer whether the Metro money being dangled before the City is a net or gross revenue figure! The City’s portion of revenues will only be realized after construction and permitting costs are removed and Metro hasn’t yet determined how it will contract for sign construction and operations. How can the CPC and other decision-makers weigh in without being able to understand what the City might receive in return? They cannot. At the $300 million level, if realized, the City would see only a few million per year. An unbiased cost/benefit analysis would surely find that the costs when measured in injuries, pain and suffering and deaths, environmental negative impacts and degradation, and long-lasting blight far outweigh the estimated monetary benefits. It is the billboard companies who will benefit.
The first action of our new Mayor upon taking office was to reverse former Mayor Garcetti’s executive order to light the Hollywood Sign, understanding the impacts to the hillside communities. We need the leadership and voice of Mayor Bass now. This will be her legacy after Council President Krekorian and others who have been the main proponents of digital billboards over time have either been indicted, convicted or will be termed out.
NOTE: The City Planning Commission is slated to hear the proposed ordinances to enable the Metro TCN to be implemented at their meeting Thursday, Sept. 14, 8:30 am. The public may submit written comments or may testify in person or via zoom. The meeting agenda can be found here.
(Barbara Broide is a community activist currently serves as Co-President of the Coalition for a Beautiful Los Angeles (formerly Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight).)