Taking Shelter from Bus Stop Ads

Taking Shelter from Bus Stop Ads

Legislation allows ads on state roads; Falls Road excluded.

Terry Walker won the battle but lost the war. And he’s OK with that.

A year ago, Walker, a Potomac resident, began contacting local and state legislators in an effort to stop a Montgomery County plan to allow Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. to place commercial advertising in 400 bus shelters. Walker raised questions about the legality of allowing ads in state right of way and argued strongly against placing ads in two shelters near the Potomac Community Center.

The legal questions were laid to rest by a near-unanimous vote in both houses of the Maryland legislature on a bill that specifically allows such advertising agreements. But state Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) negotiated a last-minute verbal deal with Clear Channel to remove the Community Center bus shelters from its plan before lending his support to the bill.

“In February I got a call [telling me] the senator was meeting with people on this issue,” Walker said. “I thought by then it was dead because I hadn’t heard anything for four months.”

Last week, Garagiola’s office received written confirmation from Clear Channel’s legal counsel that the Falls and Woodington shelters would be excluded, and Walker laid his fight to rest.

“I still feel that it is wrong to put commercial advertising on three or four hundred bus shelters,” he said, but “I’m not going to keep beating my head against the wall. I’m pacified.”

IN APRIL, 2004 the Montgomery County Council agreed to let Clear Channel 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, 150 would be newly constructed and 250 would replace existing shelters. Clear Channel would be responsible for the maintenance of all 500 shelters.

The agreement ended a protracted legal battle between Clear Channel and the county regarding the removal of the 11 large billboards. County Executive Doug Duncan helped disassemble the first of them in a ceremony earlier this month.

The proposed sites for shelters with advertising included 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, who lives near Woodington, sent letters to Garagiola, Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) and then Council President Steve Silverman (D-At Large) stating that he believed the ads on Falls were inappropriate to the character of the area. He said in interviews that he did not think replacing 11 large ads with 400 small ones was an equitable deal for the citizens of Montgomery County.

In September, Garagiola contacted Charlie Watkins, District 3 Engineer for Maryland Department of Transportation, who cited Maryland Annotated Code 21-205 (e), stating, “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.”

Silverman and council staff concluded that a bus shelter is not a “traffic sign or signal” and that the language does not apply.

Cryor and Garagiola both said they had heard nothing about the clarifying legislation to allow advertising on state roads until it reached the floor of their respective houses.

Garagiola “held over” the bill, an administrative procedure whereby any senator can delay action on a bill for one day so he can further review it, a courtesy granted until the last week of the session and not subject to a vote or review by other members.

Garagiola approached Thomas Middleton, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which brought out the legislation. “He said, ‘If you want to try to fight it you can try to fight it, but the votes are probably here,’” Garagiola said. So he went directly to Clear Channel.

Garagiola didn’t specifically threaten to hold up the legislation, but expressed concern about it and said in an interview that he believes Clear Channel might have seen his opposition as a threat to the bill.

“Getting legislation passed, no matter how simple it may seem is very difficult. One legislator can kill legislation,” Garagiola said. “From my perspective, here was an opportunity … This was actually the first time where I ended up stopping or slowing down legislation and using that as leverage. They were concerned that I was going to foil the legislation.”

Cryor took a slightly different approach.

“Talk about an under-the-radar bill,” said Cryor, who said the legislation reached the floor of her house late on the last day of the legislative session.

The legislation passed the Senate 44-0 on Feb. 26 and passed the House of Delegates 130-1 on April 6. Cryor cast the only dissenting vote.

“I’m a proponent of local land management. To me this is a question that has to do with local land management. I don’t know how the state thinks it can get involved,” she said. “I want to make it clear I am not opposed to the shelters. But this is not the way to do it.”

Cryor said that local land use rules need to apply to installing such advertising and that shelters should be considered on a case-by-case basis. She said that placing ads in commercial areas such as downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring would be acceptable while undermining the residential character of areas like Potomac is problematic.

Walker agreed. “I was mostly concerned about Falls Road because there is absolutely no commercial advertising on Falls Road,” he said. With those shelters out of the picture, he said, “I guess I’m willing to settle.”