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Downtown View: An Electronic Sea of Billboards

Have you heard the news? In late November Governor Patrick signed off on a plan to make Massachusetts highways look like Times Square.

He must have decided that trees, rolling meadows and a granite road cut or two just didn’t send the right message in the souped-up, electronic world we now live in.

The Times Square look will bring us up to date. It features electronic/digital billboards guaranteed to excite you with bright lights, moving images, and changing advertisements. Just imagine driving up I-93, feasting your eyes on dancing cell phones, somersaulting banks and popping beer cans.

You don’t like billboards? That’s so 1980s. That’s when Mike Dukakis was governor. He didn’t like them then, and he still doesn’t. He tried to talk Patrick and his sidekick, Richard Davey, the state’s Secretary of Transportation, into rejecting the electronic billboard plan. They basically told him he was an old fuddy-duddy, and that they weren’t about to pay attention to the digital billboard ban in effect in Massachusetts that was enacted in 1971. Or the 1965 Highway Beautification Act that banned intermittent, flashing or moving lights.

Clear Channel Outdoor, a national billboard company owned by Bain Capital and Thomas Lee Partners, holds more than half the billboard permits in Massachusetts and was a major proponent of overturning those 1971 Massachusetts regulations. Clear Channel focused on Massachusetts because billboards are banned in Vermont and Maine, so they had to go somewhere else if they wanted to despoil the New England landscape.

The purpose of billboards, of course, is to distract you when you are driving. You might have thought that it wasn’t good to distract you while you are driving. After all, we’re not supposed to text, munch or put on makeup when we’re behind the wheel. There have been studies purportedly showing that the billboards are safe for drivers. Billboard opponents disagree. There’s no way, they say, that these billboards aren’t a major distraction to drivers. That is what they are there for.

The reason the billboard industry loves electronic billboards is the money. Rotating ads generate more money per billboard than the old-style does. It’s also the reason Patrick and Davey love them. Clear Channel, for example, has entered into exclusive, long-term contracts with the MBTA, providing that cash-strapped agency with the dough it hasn’t been able to raise from the legislature. Billboard opponents say the T got taken for a ride since Clear Channel pays them much less than the industry norm. But maybe that’s just being picky.

You might be thinking, whew, Boston doesn’t have to worry about looking like Times Square since the BRA has banned new billboards in several areas of the city, most recently in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill.

But you’d be sooooooo wrong. Because MBTA property is not governed by Boston’s regulations.

That means any station with enough roof, window or wall space could host an electronic billboard. Think of flashing lights on the bus stops on Boylston Street or tumbling hot dogs on the proposed new Government Center station.

Let’s imagine one other likely scenario. You know the newish billboard inside the window facing Cambridge Street at the Charles/MGH station? To heck with the fact that this station is adjacent to a historic district, the Liberty Hotel and two hospitals. Billboard opponents say the space now occupied by a huge sign has been designated by the MBTA as a location for a flashing, digital billboard. If it is too heavy for the window, it might have to go on the roof.

Vulgar? Annoying? Off-putting? Lights bothering you when you’re trying to sleep in your hospital room? Lights that make you cancel your reservation at the hotel or at Alibi’s outdoor seating area? Movement distracting enough to cause you to drive into the glass wall at the station? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing tsunami of opposition to electronic advertising everywhere all the time. People are saying, “I can’t take it anymore.”

If you can’t take it anymore, email A committee with that neighborhood association has been addressing billboard problems on Cambridge Street. They can put you in touch with movements to reduce, contain or eliminate entirely the assault on our senses. If they are successful we can go to Times Square and think it’s cool, and thank goodness we don’t have such a thing here.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

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