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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Local sign laws threaten PSTA bus shelter funding

DUNEDIN -- Bus shelter ads create visual clutter, critics say. They sometimes contain questionable images. And come May 2013, they'll be gone, at least in this city. Dunedin commissioners have banned ads on bus shelters.

That's probably not what the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board expected when, hoping to preserve a longtime advertising contract with Clear Channel, it asked Pinellas city leaders to consider amending their sign codes to allow ads on the shelters.

Since 1995, Clear Channel has built and maintained bus shelters in exchange for advertising space, but only two Pinellas cities - Clearwater and Pinellas Park - allow the signs under current codes. (Clear Channel also has about a dozen shelters each in Largo and Dunedin that were grandfathered in when those cities later banned bus shelter ads.)

Clear Channel also paid PSTA $1,000 per shelter each year until January, when the PSTA board accepted Clear Channel's request to instead pay the transit authority 35 percent of its gross advertising revenue.

Clear Channel is having difficulty selling ads because of a slow advertising market. With 62 shelters to date, the company also said local sign laws have blocked it from fulfilling a contract requirement to put up a minimum of 117 shelters around the county.

Dunedin's decision worries PSTA, which stands to lose the contract and thousands of dollars in annual funding if other cities follow suit.

Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said at a recent PSTA board meeting that the only way to keep the contract is to expand advertising. She noted the disparity in shelters for bus riders.

"In the unincorporated area ... (you have) a little bench sitting in the hot sun or the rain and people are sitting there waiting for the bus. Then you get to another area where they've got these nice shelters," she said. "There's a great disparity. If we're going to move forward in this county with improving and expanding our transit system, we've got to have accommodations for our passengers."

In banning the ads, Dunedin officials cited a desire to preserve the city's beauty, especially in residential neighborhoods. They also were dismayed about the lack of control over ad content.

But Dunedin officials were most worried that allowing more shelter ads will create a "slippery slope" towards billboards. More details about the decision are here and here.

PSTA staffers are already exploring alternatives to the agreement with Clear Channel.

Executive director Brad Miller recommended that PSTA try to forge a partnership with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, so the two bus systems could market ad space as a regional package rather than by county. He believes the system would get more revenue that way.

PSTA has shelters at 712 of its bus stops, including those owned by Clear Channel. The transit authority uses a combination of federal, state and local funding and grants to finance its other shelters, which cost anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000.

Dunedin is willing to partner if needed.

--Keyonna Summers, Times Staff Writer

 

[Last modified: Friday, May 4, 2012 1:03pm]

    

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