It's hard to know where to begin in trying to sort out the San Mateo County manager's ill-conceived plan to boost revenue by installing billboards -- some, if not all of them, electronic -- on county-owned land along Highway 101 and Interstate 280.
The idea, apparently hatched some time ago and developed into a nearly completed proposed agreement with Allvision/Outfront Media, surfaced publicly earlier this month on a Board of Supervisors agenda; minimal details were provided in County Manager John Maltie's report to the board.
The report was included in the board's March 8 agenda packet and, thankfully, the plan's one-paragraph mention was noticed by Ladera resident Lennie Roberts, the legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills and a longtime environmental advocate. Ms. Roberts decried the proposal in a letter to the supervisors, stating that billboards along Interstate 280, an officially designated scenic highway, and the already visually blighted Highway 101, would be inappropriate.
Inappropriate, indeed. In addition to the visual blight billboards force motorists to endure, there is the crucial public safety factor. Did the county bother researching the latest data on the traffic hazards linked to digital billboards? If it had, it may have been aware of growing evidence, found in recent studies both at home and abroad, that these brightly lit signboards, often flashing quickly changing messages, increase the risk of collisions due to drivers' tendency to gaze at the signboards for longer than is safe. They are a lure, an invitation for distracted driving -- the same problem lawmakers have tried to address by banning texting and talking on hand-held phones while driving.
The county has already back-pedaled on the plan to visually mar I-280, but hardly in a manner that inspires confidence in its judgment and trust in its veracity. In a statement issued last week by a communications staff member, the county acknowledged that the highway's scenic designation "makes it impossible to place billboards there." In other words, billboards are legally prohibited there. But the statement went on to note that "I-280 is one of the most beautiful transportation corridors, and we would never do anything to change that." Really? One would not have to have razor-sharp thinking skills to pose the obvious question on that point: Then why did the county manager originally include I-280 as a probable site for electronic billboards? The answer, we think, is clear: He didn't do his homework on what is legally permissible on a scenic highway, then tried to put a spin on his about-face that mocks the intelligence of the public.
But we're not home free yet; the back-pedaling applies only to I-280. The county plans to seek approval by the Board of Supervisors to launch an unwelcome project that would install electronic signboards along Highway 101, and possibly Highway 92 and other locations.
Supervisor Dave Pine, at the March 8 meeting, voiced concern about the plan, and suggested that it be abandoned before any more money is thrown its way. Thank you, Mr. Pine, for your effort -- and any future effort needed to kill this plan. We hope your colleagues on the board join you in opposition.
(Read the Almanac's news article about the billboard plan here.)