County council tables bids for new billboards

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Allegheny County Council last week shut down another attempt to place billboards on county property, which could bring as much as $1.3 million a year but was derided by detractors as an eyesore.

The plan calls for advertising platforms at more than 40 county locations, including the county jail, along the Parkway East, Downtown, and the Health Department building on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Both traditional and electronic billboards would be in the mix.

But not for now: The proposal drew the effective veto of Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, who led a successful push on the public works committee to table the plan. It will take a two-thirds vote to bring it back into consideration.

Ms. Danko said the proposal, which was first brought up in October, was put on the committee agenda without discussion or adequate reconsideration.

"That's her choice," said committee chair Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, who supports the plan. "We have an opportunity to gain revenue. Would it be harmful to look at the side of the jail with a sign on it?"

Three companies submitted bids for the billboards. Lamar Advertising would pay $436,500 a year; TS Outdoor Media, $804,000; Interstate Outdoor Advertising, $24,000.

The bids previously were wrapped into a plan to put up cell phone towers on county property, but county council voted in October to take a longer look. The proposal hasn't changed since then, Mr. Macey said.

County manager William McKain said the county has rights to free advertising on the billboards, which also could be used for emergency notices. They'd be spread out in Pittsburgh, Bethel Park, Ross and Carnegie, among other places.

"We're looking for new revenue streams," he said. "We believe this is a viable option. It would be done tastefully."

Former county commissioner Mike Dawida sat in the front row of the audience during the meeting, a silent critic. A friend of Mr. Macey, Mr. Dawida now heads Scenic Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that opposes billboards under the umbrella of promoting scenic beauty.

After the meeting, he detailed his complaints, calling out electronic advertisements in particular as a menace for drivers.

"There are definitive studies that show they're just like texting. These things just jump out at you," he said.

Each billboard would require approval from local government, too. Mr. Dawida said he expects most municipal officials would oppose advertising in their towns, with only two or three actually getting built.

Billboards are omnipresent in Pittsburgh, but they have produced their share of controversy. In October, Lamar posted ads criticizing City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak after she pushed for a 10 percent tax on outdoor advertising -- "Worst economy in 50 years ... let's raise taxes," they read.

Ms. Rudiak took the hit in stride, remarking, tongue-in-cheek, that she was adding a new tax, not raising one.

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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