Since May, Potomac resident Terry Walker has sent dozens of letters and e-mails to legislators expressing concern about a County Council action that would place advertising in county bus shelters, including several along Falls Road and River Road in Potomac. Now the responses opposing the advertising are piling up.
In an April 13 action, the County Council agreed to let Clear Channel Entertainment, Inc. place lighted advertising in the Plexiglas panels of 400 county bus shelters in exchange for removing 11 large billboard advertisements and building 100 new, non-advertising shelters for the county. Of the 400 advertising shelters, some would be newly constructed and others would replace existing shelters. Clear Channel would be responsible for the maintenance of all 500 shelters.
The proposed sites for shelters with advertising include Falls Road at Woodington Drive, River Road in front of Congressional Country Club, the corner of Falls and River roads, the corner of Seven Locks and Montrose Roads and the corner of Seven Locks and Tuckerman Lane.
Walker said since he became aware of the council move, he’s been on the offensive, trying to put a stop to the advertising.
“I’m fighting for two reasons,” Walker said. “One, I don’t agree that we should put commercial advertising in residential areas where it does not currently exist. Secondly, I don’t think that the negotiated agreement to take down ten big billboards in exchange for the right to erect 400 small billboards with advertising — I don’t thing that’s a fair agreement. I don’t think that’s fair and equitable for the citizens of Montgomery County.”
“This is a very bad idea,” said Del. Jean Cryor (R-15). “It sets precedent. It’s destructive of residential values … If you wanted put signs up on these roads in these residential areas you would not be allowed to.” The proposed advertising violates local master plans and zoning law, Cryor says. “This is not within the zoning that exists for residential areas. And that’s it. That’s it,” she said. “What is most annoying about this is the very people who allowed this to happen are the ones best versed in knowing what master plans mean.”
As for the benefit to the county of new bus shelters, Cryor said, “The cookie they’re offering to build a bus shelter which should be there no matter what is just a ridiculous transaction.
Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) initiated an inquiry with the Department of Transportation. In a Sept. 21 letter to Walker, Garagiola wrote, “I contacted Charlie Watkins, District 3 Engineer for Maryland Department of Transportation about your concerns. Mr. Watkins indicated that commercial advertisements cannot be placed along a Maryland highway.”
“The county government is going to have to re-look at their proposal,” Garagiola said in an interview.
The letter cites Maryland Code 21-205 (e) which states “A person may not place or maintain on any highway nor may any public authority permit on any highway any traffic sign or signal that has any commercial advertising on it.”
But Council President Steve Silverman (D-at large) says the code Garagiola cited does not apply. In a Sept. 29 letter to Garagiola, he wrote “As I read it, this section of the Code does not prohibit commercial advertising generally, but it prohibits advertising specifically on traffic signs and traffic signals. It does not appear to apply to ads on shelters, or on any other type roadside advertising, for that matter.”
To Walker, that’s precisely the problem. “I think this is a dangerous precedent,” he said. “Next thing we’re going to have is more billboards without bus shelters, more billboards the county can make money off of, and we’re going to ruin the green vista we now enjoy when we go up and down these roads.”
What started as an effort to maintain the attractiveness of his own neighborhood has grown into an issue with implications statewide, Walker says. “This has blossomed … to a larger issue of whether counties have the right to post commercial advertising for their benefit in the state right-of-way,” he said. “If Steve Silverman is right that commercial advertising is allowed on state highways, I mean that’s a whole new ballgame. We’re going to have billboards all along state highways? Everybody believes that that’s now prohibited.”
The advertising allows a much better quality shelter program which will encourage bus usage in both urban and residential areas — and that’s good for residents, said Silverman. Approving the advertising package, he said, “made sense … if for no other reason than to have a much more extensive and adequate bus shelter program than we’ve had in the past.”
Could the county have approved advertising only for existing commercial areas like downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring?
“We certainly could have done that but it doesn’t go far enough to increase bus utilization,” Silverman said. “What we wanted to do was to get people along residential areas using the bus.”
“We aren’t going to distinguish between different areas in the county,” Silverman said. “Even though Falls Road … is not a major road in the same category as Georgia Avenue or New Hampshire Avenue we want to increase bus usage by people living in those communities as well.”
As for one of Potomac residents’ main concerns about the program, he said, “There’s never been any evidence that bus shelters bring down property values.”