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Digital signs: Banned elsewhere, coming to Tacoma

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Feb. 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
February 8, 2011 4:11 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

All over America, cities and even some states (see box) have banned digital billboards due to concerns about driver distractions and nighttime light pollution.

Yet they’ll be coming to Tacoma streets in the near future in an agreement the city struck last summer with Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns almost all the traditional billboards scattered throughout the city.

It’s easy to see what Clear Channel gets out of the agreement that would end its lawsuit against the city’s admirable effort to reduce the number of billboards. Clear Channel will be able to replace its somewhat profitable regular billboards with a lesser number of enormously profitable digital signs. The settlement was approved last summer by the City Council in a hurry-up fashion that kept the public and media out of the loop.

Nationwide, only about half of 1 percent of billboards are digital. Yet they account for 12 percent of billboard revenue, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

These signs – which look something like enormous TV sets – are such huge money-makers because each digital billboard can serve many advertisers. The signs’ faces would change every eight seconds, and they can be set up to rotate messages based on the day of the week or time of the day. Compare that to a traditional billboard that has the same message for weeks or months at a time.

Because digital signs are estimated to be more than 10 times more profitable than regular billboards, Clear Channel won’t lose out by agreeing to give up 53 existing sign “faces” in exchange for rights to erect 10 digital faces. (Each side of a billboard is one face, but not all billboards have two faces.) And it will be able to build 26 more in the future if it removes all its old signs and gives up permits for future ones.

The agreement is all but a done deal for the first 10 signs. And according to the settlement, all 10 can be the largest size possible – an enormous 672 square feet. But as part of changes being made to Tacoma’s sign code, the city could still exert some control over future signs’ size and such specifications as height and distance from residences.

Some of the new digital signs will be allowed in locations that currently do not have any billboards, including the South Union Avenue and 23rd Street area.

While all digital signs should be erected in ways that minimize their impact on existing residences, areas getting billboards for the first time should be given utmost consideration.
Limits should be placed on sign brightness, which has been a source of complaints in other cities with these signs. Nearby residents complain about the amount of light streaming into their homes at night.

Other concerns that have been raised elsewhere include the noise caused by fans used to cool the signs in hot weather – which is when Puget Sounders have their windows open – and the considerable e-waste generated when the signs’ lives are over. The city should be sure noise pollution regulations apply to the signs and that Clear Channel has an adequate e-waste recycling plan in place.

The city is allowing these intrusive digital signs as a way of making a lawsuit go away – a lawsuit, by the way, that it might have won. But it still has some leverage here, and it should use it. Clear Channel has an immense financial stake in making the transition from traditional billboards to the more profitable digital ones, and the city should exact as many concessions as possible.

No. 1 should be getting rid of the most intrusive billboards as quickly as possible, including the monstrosity at South Union Avenue and Center Street.

Where are digital signs banned?
Places where digital billboards are banned include: Dallas, Fort Worth, Galveston, Austin and Houston, Texas; San Francisco, Calif.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Denver, Colo.; Pima County, Ariz.; and the states of Maine and Montana. Many cities, including Los Angeles, have moratoriums on new ones.

For more information on how other communities are dealing with digital billboards, click here.

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