The state Senate has cleared the way for Santa Monica’s city government to install digital signs on its municipal buses with a unanimous vote July 15.

Assembly Bill 607, sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), is a five-year pilot program for the seaside city to bring in additional revenue to its municipal coffers.

Brownley, in an interview with The Argonaut, stressed that the proposed signs on buses are not billboards and the revenue derived from these signs could be a welcome windfall for the city government.

“We’re facing a major budget deficit right know,” the assemblywoman noted.

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 said.

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

But Dennis Hathaway, a Venice resident who has been at the forefront of a movement in Los Angeles to limit the number of billboards in the city, thinks AB 607 could establish a bad precedent.

“I think the most serious thing about this is the distraction that it could cause to motorists,” said Hathaway, the executive director the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “Not only can this potentially be more visual blight, but they can also pose a safety hazard.”

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, according to an AB 607 fact sheet.

Santa Monica officials have seen what transpired in Los Angeles and are very conscious about not creating the same animosity that some have toward digital signs, according to City Councilman Kevin McKeown.

“We’re very much aware of the problems Los Angeles has created for itself with garish digital billboards, and we intend to learn from their mistakes,” McKeown said. “If we move forward with electronic bus cards, they will not have any animation, will not change every five or 10 seconds, and will not be painfully bright.”

Santa Monica has one of the most restrictive policies in the state on regulating billboards, an irony that is not lost on Hathaway.

“It’s ironic that Santa Monica is one of the toughest cities on billboard regulations and now they’re considering these rolling billboards,” he said.

McKeown said safety will be a priority before any policy on digital bus signs is adopted. But generating much needed income from the mobile advertisements was a key factor in the council’s decision to ask Brownley to carry AB 207.

“We decided to evaluate the potential to fund neededmass transit with new advertising technologies, but if we go forward we will consider traffic safety, visual overload, and aesthetics,” the councilman said.

Brownley also pointed out Santa Monica’s position on digital billboards, noting that the city does not allow them, like Los Angeles.

The ban on new billboards in Los Angeles was championed by Hathaway and other anti-blight activists in 2009. It was part of a new sign ordinance that established new guidelines for fines and sanctions against those who violate them. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has sought criminal charges against at least three property owners who have allegedly broken the new law governing billboards and supergraphics.

The new sign ordinance also includes a ban on converting traditional billboards into digital signs.

The Santa Monica Municipal Code prohibits off-premise signs, billboards and poster panels, under Section 9.52.150 (i).

Santa Monica resident Jerry Rubin, who has ridden the Big Blue Bus for several decades, is confident that the council will take into account the views of anyone who is opposed to having digital ads on the city buses.

“We have a council that listens, so I think everything will be fine,” said Rubin, who supports having electronic signs for the Big Blue Bus.

Brownley 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.

Hathaway, who lives near a Big Blue Bus Line No. 2 stop on Lincoln Boulevard, said the buses frequently travel through residential neighborhoods and that is another of his worries about having digital signs on the Santa Monica buses.

“Having those flashing lights in the evening near a home can be very distracting,” he said.

Rubin, who addressed the council in May in support of keeping Line 2 intact, reiterated his trust in the council to mitigate any concerns that Hathaway and others might have about digital bus signs, including visual blight.

“People have their own opinions on what is blight,” he said. “Seeing cars backed up on the freeways and on our streets is also visual blight, and getting revenue for our transit system can help combat that type of blight.

“I would also like to see some of our local nonprofit groups, like Heal the Bay, be included (in the pilot program),” Rubin added.

Dawson said new technology exists that can make the glare from digital signs less intense. “It’s in use in New York and Chicago, and they haven’t reported any problems with it,” he said.

McKeown said the council has seen a selection of conceptual plans for electronic bus signs, and it would be incumbent upon him and his colleagues to make certain that the signs are not a distraction because the buses bear the city’s name.

“The concept presented to our City Council is displays that can be changed for different dayparts or locations, not bright flashing signage on our Big Blue Buses, which we realize are rolling ambassadors from Santa Monica to the rest of the region,” he said.

Hathaway, who discussed his views with Brownley July 18 on public radio station KPCC, said he plans to speak before the Santa Monica council when a digital bus advertisement proposal comes before them.

“This needs much more public vetting,” he said. “I strongly support public transportation, but this will be seen to many as visual pollution.”

Dawson said installing the moving advertisements will not happen soon.

“This is a very long, arduous process,” he cautioned. “If we get approval from council, we would then need to do a lot of internal work, including on our bus infrastructure to see how the signs would be installed.”

Brownley noted that her legislation considers the possibility that some of the things that worry Hathaway would be assessed by the City Council.

“The city would be required to evaluate any adverse impacts by these signs by 2016,” she said.

Dawson said the transit line would be required to pay for the infrastructure for the signs, possibly through grants from the Federal Transit Administration.

Anthony Alden, an attorney who represents Santa Monica-based Summit Media an outdoor advertising company, declined to comment on whether the company would be interested in participating in the pilot program.

AB 607 is scheduled to go to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown next month.

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