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Ire rises over Mass. plan for electronic billboards

A billboard advertising Coca-Col on the Mystic Valley Parkway.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

A billboard advertising Coca-Col on the Mystic Valley Parkway.

A proposal to introduce a slew of electronic billboards around the state has stalled following stiff opposition from former governor Michael S. Dukakis and Mayors Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, who say they will ramp up their efforts to keep local billboards from going digital.

Locations for seven of 18 proposed electronic billboards were slated to come up for approval at a May 9 meeting of the Department of Transportation’s Office of Outdoor Advertising, but Richard A. Davey, the state’s transportation secretary, pulled the item from the agenda before the meeting. All seven billboards were to be in Boston.

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Dukakis and the mayors are angry that municipal leaders have not been consulted about the siting of the bright digital signs sought by Clear Channel Communications, and because communities would not have any say in their placement.

The vote was postponed because local leaders had conveyed their ire to officials, according to Dukakis. Davey said he delayed the vote because he had his own questions about the deal.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why we need these in the Commonwealth,” Dukakis said in a phone interview. “The T is hell-bent on becoming the state’s primary visual polluter.”

Said Curtatone, “There hasn’t been any engagement or cooperation or collaboration with Somerville at all about how the billboards would affect the neighborhoods. . . . We should have some input.”

Dukakis, long a billboard critic, is on the board of directors of Scenic Massachusetts, an organization founded just a few months ago that is dedicated fighting highway signs. Dukakis and the organization plan to file an amicus brief to accompany a lawsuit already filed against the Transportation Department related to the billboards.

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At issue is a contract the state signed last year with Clear Channel Communications allowing the company to erect 18 of the digital signs around the state.

The location of each must be approved by the Office of Outdoor Advertising.

Whether, and where, to allow billboards — digital or otherwise — is a decades-old battle in Massachusetts with many flare-ups over the years. In the 1970s and ’80s, environmentalists argued that billboards created visual pollution and detracted from the state’s natural beauty.

The state’s outdoor advertising agency was plagued with accusations of corruption.

More recently, the advent of digital technology has brought concerns about billboard regulations to a head once again. The Transportation Department changed regulations to allow digital billboards as long as the images are not animated and the signs provide time for public service announcements.

In 2009, the agency instituted a pilot program with a few of the billboards going up in Chicopee, Foxborough, Medford, Stoneham, Lawrence, Fall River, and New Bedford.

Last year, the state signed the contract with Clear Channel to convert up to 18 billboards to digital.

Dukakis criticized the contract, arguing that the department failed to effectively negotiate with Clear Channel, the state’s largest billboard vendor. The contract mandates that the state receive 25 percent of advertising revenue, or $90,000 per year per billboard, whichever is higher.

Other agencies in the country have negotiated contracts that give the government a much larger cut.

In the Massachusetts contract, if any of the billboards are removed in the future, it could cost the state as much as $500,000 per billboard.

The billboard locations that were scheduled to be voted on last month were spread around the city: One in Savin Hill, facing south on I-93, two facing in either direction close to the JFK/UMass MBTA station, two facing in either direction on William F. McClellan Highway in East Boston, and two facing in either direction at 439 Albany St. in the South End.

Last month, when Davey removed the billboards from the department agenda, he requested a more specific timetable on the rollout of the digital billboards, as well as estimates on how much revenue the billboards would bring in.

Davey, through a spokeswoman, maintained that his decision to postpone the vote had nothing to do with pressure from local leaders.

“The secretary has great respect for and is fully aware of the former governor’s position on billboards,” said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation. “The two have had conversations in the past and have a meeting scheduled for next month on the topic. . . . The secretary asked for the items to be removed from the agenda in order to satisfy his own outstanding questions regarding timetables and revenue estimates.”

Curtatone said he has plans to speak to Davey in coming weeks to come up with a plan on switching to digital in a cautious and prudent manner, he said.

“I’m very supportive of MassDOT trying to raise revenues,” Curtatone said, “but not at the expense of our quality of life.”

Dukakis said that he is sympathetic to the argument that the MBTA needs money, but, he argued, the total revenue from the billboard fees would equal a half-cent increase in the gas tax.

Kairos Shen, Boston’s chief planner, said that the city is not categorically opposed to digital billboards — after all, city zoning allows the signs to appear in specific areas, such as the Theatre and the Seaport districts.

The city has also approved individual signs outside of those approved digital billboard zones, Shen said, such as a sign on top of the WGBH studios in Brighton looking over the Massachusetts Turnpike.

But, Shen maintained, special approval for those billboards was given by the city after they were assessed through an official hearing process.

The Transportation Department, he said, is aiming to install the digital signs unilaterally, with no attempts to iron out an agreement with abutting municipalities.

The city might be amenable to supporting the billboards if the department reached out to the city at first.

“We wish they would follow our process,” Shen said. “There is a process in the city for them to go through, which would mean including the community and the input of the community in a robust way. But the T is exempt from that.”

The Transportation Department is not scheduled to take up the issue in June, but could vote later this summer.

Curtatone said he fears the billboards are part of a more general warming toward visual pollution that has been fought against for decades.

“Pretty soon you’re going to be able to walk to Boston just by hopping the billboards on 93,” Curtatone said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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