The Big Blue Bus may soon be carrying another full-time passenger that Santa Monica officials think will allow the city to reap a financial whirlwind during economically challenging times.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law Assembly Bill (AB) 607, sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), a five-year pilot program that will permit electronic billboards to be installed on Santa Monica buses and help the seaside city bring in additional revenue to its municipal coffers, supporters of the bill say.

In a July 18 interview with The Argonaut, the assemblywoman said a small number of the buses would be fitted with the digital ads if the council adopts a plan to install them. “In the pilot program, only 30 buses will be used out of a fleet of over 200,” she said.

Big Blue Bus Customer Relations Manager Dan Dawson said the City Council indicated that it was interested in exploring the possibility of the digital advertisements on buses when the concept was brought before the council earlier this year.

Any additional revenue derived from the signs could benefit the transit line’s customers, Dawson added.

“Having income from the digital signs could prevent an increase in fares, which we or the council don’t want,” he said.

The state Senate unanimously voted to pass AB 607 July 15.

The City Council must vote on the bill before AB 607 can be enacted. The vote is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 25.

According to the legislation, existing law authorizes a bus operated by a publicly owned transit system on regularly scheduled service to be equipped with illuminated signs that display information directly related to public service and include destination signs, route-number signs, run-number signs, public service announcement signs, or a combination of those signs.

Opposition to Brownley’s bill is coming from different quarters in Los Angeles. Many Big Blue Bus routes intersect with neighboring communities, like Venice, Del Rey and Mar Vista.

Dennis Hathaway, director of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, said there are a number of people on the Westside who will be concerned about additional visual blight as well as traffic safety related to the digital signs.

“To add these kinds of distractions from a traffic safety standpoint is just not good policy,” said Hathaway, who resides in Venice.

Mar Vista resident Ken Alpern took Brownley to task for sponsoring the bill and Brown for signing it.

“I’m shocked that Assemblywoman Brownley and Gov. Brown would, as environmental advocates who presumably care about public safety, promote a form of advertising which is both as inefficient a use of energy as it is efficient in distracting drivers and creating traffic accidents,” said Alpern, a transit advocate and the co-chair of the Transit Coalition.

Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is also opposed to AB 607. On Aug. 25, Trutanich sent a letter to Brownley detailing the reasons that he is against the bill and implied that there had been little or no cooperation between the two jurisdictions.

“My position on this bill has not been arrived at lightly,” Trutanich wrote. “In July, we asked your staff to amend the bill to limit the scope of the pilot project to buses that operate within Santa Monica’s city limits. This request was rejected because of concerns about the project’s diminished revenue potential.

“We also proposed an operating (memorandum of understanding) with your staff, Santa Monica transportation officials, and their lobbyists, which would allow Los Angeles to regulate the operation of those digital bus signs entering our residential neighborhoods, driving on our city streets after sunset, or determined by the Los Angeles Police Department) or (the Department of Transportation) to be unsafe.

“(But) we were told that the city of Santa Monica would not agree to this.”

Since his election more than two years ago, Trutanich has been steadfast in his opposition to billboards and other outdoor signs. His office has prosecuted several billboard company owners for erecting illegal supergraphics and signs and issued expensive fines.

Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown said no one should expect digital ads to appear on the sides of buses anytime soon.

“Now that the bill passed and was signed, we still have about a year before implementation, during which the council will look at the signs on Oct.25th and then, at a later meeting, set policy on just what the signs may be used for, which may very well not extend to the full capabilities of digital signs or the full latitude afforded in the state law,” McKeown explained.

“New technologies are exciting, but when safety is an issue they must beexplored prudently. I doubt our City Council is going to trade road safety for a little bit of added bus revenue because some advertiser wants a flashing sign.”

Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who has worked with Santa Monica officials on a variety of environmental initiatives, is also opposed to Brownley’s bill.

“Typical Santa Monica. It’s always only about them,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “I agree with our city attorney and I’m worried about streaming signs on our city streets.”

Trutanich said the technology is new and untested and he is worried that these billboards may become a safety hazard.

“The proposed digital bus panels have not been tested in the state of California. We have serious concerns about the public’s safety in the face of large, rapidly changing or streaming signs moving at speed on city streets,” he wrote. “We also have unanswered questions about the potential environmental impacts of these signs and whether they will be studied and mitigated in full by the city of Santa Monica.”

Alpern, chair of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, argued for a suspension of the pilot program in the event that any safety or illumination problems were discovered.

“It is my sincere hope that the level of lighting is strictly enforced, and that any risks to public safety are immediately acknowledged in order to shut down this dangerous and foolish pilot project,” he asserted.

McKeown contends that the initiative should be judged based on how his city chooses to proceed with the signs.

“Support or opposition should be based on what Santa Monica actually does with electronic bus signs, not on anyone’s fears about what the state legislation suggests a community might do,” the Santa Monica councilman said. “I won’t vote to allow moving text or animation on bus signs unless someone proves to me that such driver distractions are safe, and I doubt that they could be.”

Brownley did not return calls for comment on her bill.

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