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 the "lackluster" 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 other 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, saying they were told PSTA had no authority to address past complaints about ads the city believed contained stereotypes or images that weren't family friendly. For example, they objected to a past radio station ad in a low-income area that featured a black man dressed like a pimp.
But Dunedin officials also are worried that allowing more shelter ads will create a "slippery slope" toward billboards.
In 2004 the city updated its sign code to ban new bus shelter ads. To help repel lawsuits filed against other cities over their billboard bans, Dunedin also spelled out the reason for its existing billboard ban, calling them distractions for motorists and pedestrians.
"Staff's strong recommendation is to resist anything that would result in additional advertising ... beyond what is currently grandfathered," City Manager Rob DiSpirito told commissioners last month. "It moves us in a bad direction, in our opinion, toward the ability of that larger advertising ... where we may put ourselves in jeopardy of being successfully challenged in the future by insidiously allowing these smaller things to happen."
PSTA staffers are already exploring alternatives to the agreement with Clear Channel.
In accepting PSTA executive director Brad Miller's recommendation to approve Clear Channel's revenue request, PSTA board members downgraded their five-year agreement with the company to one year. Under the new terms, PSTA will assume ownership of Clear Channel's shelters on May 30, 2013 rather than having to buy them back at a pro-rated cost.
Meanwhile, 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.
"These have real value to people who use the bus system," Mayor Dave Eggers said. "To wait on those buses out in the sun can be oppressive."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.