"T set to raise cash with billboard blitz; 19 localities receiving ads have little power to say no" by Noah Bierman, Globe Staff | March 24, 2009
The MBTA, desperate to raise money, will auction off space for 60 new billboards along highways in Eastern Massachusetts, in what officials are calling the largest single introduction of new billboard sites in state history.
The jumbo advertisements, expected to earn the agency about $6 million a year, will be grouped in 32 locations in 19 cities and towns that have little or no control over their placement.
"At Wellington station? You've got to be kidding," said Medford Mayor Michael J. McGlynn, when a reporter told him about a plan to erect two billboards back-to-back in his city. "No one wants someone just coming into their community and saying 'Hey, here's where it's going. Like it or lump it.' "
The new billboards, announced yesterday as the agency tries to stave off a fare increase, are part of an ongoing program launched last month, when workers began installing 20 new signs at 10 locations along interstates in Boston, Somerville, and Westwood. By the middle of next year, the MBTA expects to have more than tripled the number of supersize "bulletin" billboards than it had at the beginning of this year.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency is exercising its special right, affirmed last year by the Supreme Judicial Court, to put up ads on its property without local zoning review. In their ruling, the judges said that the T, in fact, had a responsibility to try to minimize fare hikes by leasing ad space.
The value of these advertisements stems not only from their high visibility but also because companies would not otherwise be able to erect signs in many of these cities and towns if local officials had their say. None of the officials reached yesterday were aware of the MBTA's plans.
"What's a billboard? We don't allow them," said Buzz Stapczynski, town manager of Andover, where the MBTA plans to install four new signs on either side of Interstate 495. Stapczynski called it another example of the state stepping on the rights of cities and towns.
MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said yesterday that he expects opposition and has attempted to steer clear of neighborhood locations in favor of major highways. But the agency needs the money, he said, as it struggles with debt that is forcing it to consider large fare increases and cuts in service. He said he will inform local communities after bids come in on each of the sites and the T makes a final decision to proceed with the new billboards.
"It will triple the size of our advertising" revenue, Grabauskas said. "We know we've got a very good thing to put on the market and that's why we think we're going to get a good amount of money."
The T's real estate consultant estimates the billboards announced yesterday will generate at least $6 million more a year over the course of a 20-year lease, beginning next year, and double that if the state's outdoor advertising board eventually approves new digital-style billboards at some locations. The bright digital boards are currently being tested under a pilot program, officials said.
I wouldn't want to live next to one: The Chicken Roaster
Still, none of the money will come until next year, and it will not be enough to solve the T's $160 million deficit. Grabauskas is hoping for a legislative bailout, in the form of an increased gas tax, but took the first step yesterday toward the fare increases and service cuts that could be necessary if that does not come through.
Everyone gets a bailout but you, taxpayer.
He authorized spending $86,000 to analyze the potential socioeconomic, environmental, and revenue effects of a fare increase - a legal requirement any time the agency raises the cost of commuting.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? He just WASTED $90,000 dollars?
In the meantime, Grabauskas said he is trying to maximize the value of the agency's real estate portfolio. Grabauskas said that despite the soft economy, his staff has received national interest in the billboard sites, which MBTA officials said had been vetted for compliance with federal guidelines that limit billboard heights and their proximity to each other. The T's contract would require the winning bidder to build the $500,000 billboards with private money and share 40 percent of its revenues with the agency, with a guaranteed payment that rises yearly with inflation.
Promises, promises, promises.
The MBTA is already a major player in the billboard market, sprinkling them liberally along its 400 miles of right-of-way since at least the 1940s. In addition to dozens of large-size "bulletin" boards around the state - which each measure 14-by-48 feet - the T leases space for another 149 "poster" billboards - measuring 12-by-25 feet. The T also leases out space to put canvas advertisements on its building walls in 10 other locations.
Michael A. Caira, town manager of Wilmington, predicts anger in his community when locals learn the T has plans for four new billboards on I-93. He understands the T is in a financial crunch, like most government agencies, but that does not justify ignoring a town's sovereignty.
"There's not a lot of cost in making a phone call and sitting down and explaining what it is they want to do in someone else's community," he said. "This is what puts people off about big brother."
That, and more!