The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is seeking the addition of street-level digital billboards outside five Boston transit stations that will feature up-to-date arrival times, service updates and advertisements.
This move will provide the MBTA with a sustainable new source of revenue which they can reinvest in the company, outside of raising fares, according to a letter MBTA Director of Revenue Evan Rowe wrote to the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. Groups who stand for the preservation of Boston’s historic neighborhoods around the stations that will be affected, notably the Arlington and Park Street stops, have risen to challenge these billboards.
Susan Abell, the director of communication and outreach at the Friends of the Public Garden, who oppose the new digital billboards, said preserving public space within an urban landscape is vital.
“We are getting news feeds on our computer, we are getting hit with ads everywhere — they are proliferating in our lives,” Abell said. “In these parks, people get a little bit of relief from being bombarded, whether it’s from traffic or people or ads. We shouldn’t be selling our streetscapes for revenue.”
Abell said that although she understands the MBTA’s need for income, she knows they can earn money elsewhere.
“We support the T’s need for revenue [and] we recognize that they need to raise money,” Abell said. “We urge them to work with stakeholders to find an acceptable solution that allows them to provide rider information, as well as raise revenue, but they can do it inside their space.”
Outfront Media, the MBTA’s advertising partner for this project, declined to comment on the matter.
June Puttman, 62, of Dorchester, said the MBTA should respect the state regulations.
“If there are laws against [advertising near parks], I don’t think they should do it,” Puttman said. “Everyone is supposed to follow the rules.”
Rowe’s letter was a response to a Jan. 27 proposal by Martyn Roetter, the chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, who was protesting the already established digital billboard at the Back Bay train station. Though Rowe acknowledged the pushback in his reply, he affirmed the MBTA’s stance that the move will benefit the company as well as its riders.
“As you may be aware, the MBTA is required by its enabling statute to ‘establish and implement policies that provide for the maximization of non-transportation revenues from all sources,’” Rowe wrote. “And in a fiscal environment in which the MBTA faces significant pressures on its operating budget, these self-generated revenues are critical to holding the line on fares and ensuring the smooth day-to-day operation of the system.”
Rowe wrote that street-level information is key for riders who do not own smartphones to receive “quality, up-to-date information.”
Christine Choi, 29, of Brighton, said she prefers the MTBA use the billboards as a source of revenue to improve the service as an alternative to raising fares.
“I guess I’m pretty indifferent about the historical charm of Boston,” Choi said. “I’ve been here a while and I’m all for increasing the revenue without hiking up the fares, because the service is already pretty bad as it is.”
Lisa Battiston, the deputy press secretary for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, wrote in an email that the billboards are important to advance the interactions between the company and its patrons.
“Displaying real-time transit information and special service announcements, the panels represent an important part of the MBTA’s ongoing efforts to improve its communications with customers,” Battiston wrote.
The billboards are exempt from normal regulations regarding “street furniture,” Battison wrote.
Brendan Mattingly, 30, of Brighton, said the MBTA should continue with their mission and put up the controversial billboards.
“To me, it’s their property and they can do what they want with it,” Mattingly said. “I don’t financially benefit either way. Maybe it reduces the charm, but … I’m in favor of it.”
The Massachusetts government is currently taking the issue under advisement following a hearing last Thursday at the State House, Abell said.