Monday, January 14, 2008

The city doesn't need this

The billboard industry wants the Common Council to adopt an ordinance that will allow hucksters and advertisers to destroy the landscape of the city.

The bad news is that the council might do it. The industry is pushing for an ordinance change that would allow every billboard in the city to be converted to electronic versions that change messages every six seconds.

Industry representatives argue that there will not be a wholesale changeover in signs because of the expense involved and expertise needed. That seems to be an iffy proposition: the price of technology has a habit of falling, and expertise gets replaced by easy-to-use software. If the council approves the change, it won't be too long before we have dozens or hundreds of billboards screaming at us even louder than they do now.

The billboard industry has a lot of money and, judging from Ald. Mike D'Amato's water-carrying performance during last week's Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, the billboard industry has him as well. (It's one thing to support a measure -- it's another to cut off testimony when it might not be what one wishes to hear. D'Amato's abrupt silencing of a city traffic engineer brought laughter of disbelief from other committee members.)

The Federal Highway Administration is starting to study safety issues related to frequently changing billboards. Do they distract drivers? Do traffic lights get lost in the bright lights of the billboard? We don't know, and some aldermen don't want to wait a year to find out. They want to give the billboard industry everthing it wants -- right now.

The ZND Committee eventually recommended tabling the matter, but Ald. Michael Murphy, who opposes the lights-in-your-eyes measure, said he expects it to be fully debated when the full council meets on Tuesday.

The proposed changes are a sweet deal for advertising behomoths like Clear Channel and Lamar, but are bad news for the rest of us and for the city's aesthetic.

Who will the council serve when it votes on this issue?

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