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Brian McGrory

A bad sign on the horizon

It’s not every day that you get a ranting voicemail from Mike Dukakis, but that’s what I had last Friday, along with an accompanying e-mail filled with the kind of language you don’t normally associate with our famously reserved former governor.

Dukakis called about a column I wrote last week on the explosion of outdoor advertising on the streets of Boston, the visual pollution that constantly distracts from the unique appeal of urban life. Dukakis despised outdoor advertising when he was governor, and despises it now. And he kindly informed me that I’m missing an even bigger development at the state level.

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The Patrick administration, in Dukakis’s words, is “trying to emasculate” regulations to allow for an untold number of “unbelievably ugly” electronic billboards all across Massachusetts. The state, he said, will see almost nothing in return.

This was news to me. So I made a couple of calls and realized that Mike Dukakis was absolutely right.

The state has drafted language for new outdoor advertising regulations that, if approved, would open up highways to a potential onslaught of electronic billboards that feature bright lights and changing messages. It may or may not be an overstatement to say that the Southeast Expressway will suddenly look like the Las Vegas Strip, but it would look a lot different than it does now.

Dukakis, who lives among electronic signs in Los Angeles every winter, made his feelings known at a public hearing within the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the Office of Outdoor Advertising. It’s classic Dukakis, the guy who picks up litter and champions trains, rising at an unheralded hearing to have his voice heard about the visual blight of billboards.

The former governor also called part of his cavalry out of retirement, enlisting a pair of former outdoor advertising regulators to help press his case. Back in their administration, the state was in the business of taking billboards down.

Not anymore. For proof of just how much times have changed, drive no further than I-93 in Charlestown and Somerville, where the state recently allowed Clear Channel Outdoors to build eight towering poles rising out of MBTA land, holding some 16 massive billboards, in return for about $900,000 a year. The city of Somerville fought it all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court and lost.

“A drastic saturation,” Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said Thursday.

All that money we spent on the stunning Zakim Bridge, well, drivers now have a hash of Dunkin’ Donuts, liquor, and banking ads to enjoy with the view. At least half those boards would likely go electronic if the new rules are adopted.

State officials, aware of Dukakis’s opposition, are adamant that the proposed regulations are not a done deal. Richard Davey, the secretary of transportation, still has to sign off on them, and his signature won’t come unless Deval Patrick approves.

We “continue to review public comments received in response to proposed regulation changes,” said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.

Dukakis, I’m told, is seeking a meeting with Davey, of whom he speaks highly, and if necessary, Patrick himself.

Under the draft rules, there would be limits as to how bright the electronic signs could be. They could change messages only every 10 seconds, and contain no animation. Two billboards facing the same direction would need to be more than 2,000 feet apart. Communities would have veto power, except when signs are on T land.

The biggest beneficiary in all this would be Clear Channel, the biggest owner of panels in the state. Stephen Ross, who heads the company’s outdoor advertising division in Boston, pointed out that more than 40 states allow electronic signs and gamely described all the billboard time that his company would donate to nonprofits.

Thank you, Clear Channel, but once these signs are up, what can you donate to give us back our peace of mind?

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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