A fight over advertising on the streets of Boston has escalated to the halls of the Beacon Hill.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is at odds with preservationists and now lawmakers, who are pushing to limit the agency’s power to advertise on station entrances.
The state budget approved by the House of Representatives last month would require the MBTA to gain approval from city and town officials before installing outdoor ads, including digital ad displays on station entrances.
The T says the proposal would hurt revenue and potentially lead to fare hikes or service cuts. But advocates say the ads are a blight on city streets, especially in historic areas, and that the proposed law is necessary because the T has long been exempt from local zoning laws.
“Cities that are living with the impact of these billboards should have a say in it,” said Liz Vizza, the executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden.
Vizza is not directly involved with the House proposal. But she and other advocates were angered earlier this year when the T sought to install digital ad displays the size of large televisions near Boston Common and the Public Garden, at Park Street and Arlington stations.
The T plans to install hundreds of new ad displays across the system, earning an additional $6 million in advertising in the coming year, bringing the annual total to $36 million.
Only some of that money would be at risk from the proposed law. While Evan Rowe, the T’s revenue director, said limits on outdoor advertising would hurt the agency’s “long game,” he acknowledged that most of the new revenue would come from indoor ads, which wouldn’t be covered by the law.
Still, the T is speaking about the proposed law in stark terms, warning it could affect service or repair work.
“Absent advertising revenues, the options include cutting service, more rapidly increasing fares and parking fees, or seeking additional state aid,” the agency said in a memo recently given to lawmakers.
And addressing the matter this week, General Manager Luis Ramirez suggested that the T would have to increase fares by 7 percent if it did not have any ad revenue — even though just a portion would be lost.
The T’s board of directors on Monday praised the ad screens both for making money and because they broadcast information about train arrival times and service issues. The T has argued outdoor displays are particularly beneficial because they inform riders before the riders enter stations.
“The real-time information screens are amazing not just for daily users but also for people new to the city, new to the system,” said board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt.
State Representative Dan Hunt led the push for the advertising limits in the House. He did not respond to a request for comment. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh supports the initiative because “it is important for there to be municipal approval in order to ensure that the character of our neighborhoods is not diminished,” spokeswoman Nicole Caravella said.
To become law, the provision would need support from the state Senate, which will unveil its draft budget Thursday. The office of Senator Karen Spilka, who leads the chamber’s budget process and in July will become Senate president, said the budget team is “aware” of the issue but declined to comment further.
If the Senate approves the House proposal, it could be vetoed by Governor Charlie Baker, who controls the T and has pushed for the agency to increase revenue from sources like advertising. His office cited the T’s memo to lawmakers opposing the proposed rules but otherwise declined to comment.
This is not the first advertising dispute for the T. In 2008, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the agency does not need to follow local laws in a lawsuit brought by the city of Somerville and other cities. A few years later, local officials protested plans for new digital billboards. The agency recently began selling alcohol advertisements for the first time since 2012 despite opposition from Walsh and others.
This year, advocates rallied against the T’s plan to install the smaller digital displays near Boston’s historic parks. They believe the displays violate the transportation department’s own advertising rules, and argue they could instead be placed inside the station before riders pass through turnstiles.
The T has noted that the Park Street and Arlington displays wouldn’t be located on the parks themselves. The Park Street displays, for example, would be located on the station entrances across the street from the Common, in front of fast-food restaurants — and their prominent signs.
MBTA officials also say that since the agency serves many municipalities, it makes sense for it to bypass each individual communities’ zoning rules.
“What we are advocating for is . . . to continue to use the rights we have responsibly,” Rowe said.
But opponents say cities and towns should have more oversight because the existing process doesn’t work. The T’s proposals for outdoor advertising are reviewed by the Office of Outdoor Advertising at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation — which also oversees the T. Antibillboard activists have long decried this system as a conflict of interest.
At a February hearing about the Park Street and Arlington signs, opponents packed the room and were nearly unanimous in criticizing the billboards. The Office of Outdoor Advertising approved the ads several weeks later, though they have not yet been installed.
“There’s a frustration that the T just says, ‘Hey, we need revenue,’ and bowls right through,” said Greg Galer of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “The current process is clearly insufficient to accommodate a public process.”Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.