Not so fast on new billboards

Published Monday, October 26, 2009

The billboard industry, apparently hoping for Christmas in October, wants Pinellas County to relax its rules to allow messages on digital billboards to change every six seconds instead of the current 60 seconds. While the industry is interested in speed and profit, Pinellas should be in no hurry to change its rule without some considerable public benefit in return. St. Petersburg has driven a better bargain with outdoor advertising company Clear Channel, which has agreed to remove 100 traditional billboards in exchange for the right to build 10 new digital ones.

Unlike standard billboards made from vinyl, digital billboards have high-tech LED screens and the messages can be easily changed. The effect is like watching a giant television screen with rotating commercials, and the digital billboards are so bright they can be seen for miles. They cost more to build but are much more profitable for billboard companies — and the more often the ads can change, the higher the profits. So it is understandable why Clear Channel wants Pinellas to adopt the same six-second standard the state allows along roadways under its jurisdiction and why it is willing to give up so many billboards in St. Petersburg in exchange for 10 digitals.

The St. Petersburg deal negotiated by Mayor Rick Baker is attractive. Clear Channel's remaining billboards would be limited to the Interstates and three other major roads, and the mayor hopes to negotiate similar deals with other companies. But there are other issues to consider as St. Petersburg drafts its ordinance to permit digital billboards.

The most important is safety. There has been little objective research on whether digital billboards increase the risk of accidents, and a federal government study will not be completed until the end of next year. Because of their size, brightness and changing messages, digital billboards also have a greater impact on the visual environment than standard billboards. That should be a concern in Pinellas, where the public strongly supported a sign code limiting construction of new billboards and phasing out old ones.

State law also requires that billboard companies be compensated for billboards that the public wants removed along certain highways. Since digital billboards are substantially more valuable than standard ones, the public cost of removing them could be prohibitive.

These are among the issues that should be at the center of the Pinellas County Commission's discussion today. Commissioners should not consider changing the 60-second rule for rotating digital messages and increasing profits for the billboard industry without gaining significant concessions for the public.

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