Council to debate bus ads
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Outdoor Circle is worried that allowing advertising on buses could open the door to other types of outdoor ads, and Planned Parenthood has expressed concern that anti-abortion groups would jump at the opportunity to plaster the sides of buses with graphic images of aborted fetuses.
But Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz has introduced a bill to permit exterior bus advertising as the City Council struggles to find a way to raise $6.8 million to avoid cutting 100,000 bus-service hours, which could result in the layoff of 40 union employees.
All of the proposals have involved increasing bus fares, a concern to Dela Cruz, who fears an increase would hurt people who depend on the bus but can't afford to pay more to ride it.
Under Dela Cruz's Bill 50, the city would be able to sell advertising on the sides of buses to subsidize bus fares for low-income riders. After surveying five other Mainland cities that allow bus advertising, Dela Cruz found that they have earned between $600,000 and $3.85 million a year.
Council members, however, announced last week that they have figured out a way to raise the $6.8 million that includes a circuit-breaker that would freeze current bus pass prices for riders with extremely low income.
Approximately 14,500 Honolulu households would qualify. The vote on the fare increase is scheduled Wednesday.
Nonetheless, the City Council will hold a public hearing that same day to gather more input on Bill 50.
Billboards have been banned in Hawai'i since 1965, when the state adopted one of the strictest laws in the nation against outdoor advertising. The law regulates the size and placement of signs, but does not set guidelines for advertisements on privately owned moving vehicles.
Alexandra Avery, president of Na Leo Pohai, the Outdoor Circle's public policy affiliate, said advertisements or wrapped signs on public-transportation vehicles are "moving billboards which detract from the visual environment in just the same way that billboards do."
"Hawai'i's scenic beauty is a valuable economic asset that should not be risked," she said.
The bill had a lukewarm reception when heard by the council Transportation and Budget committees last week. Members advanced it in a 5-3 vote to keep it alive for discussion, with council members Charles Djou, Barbara Marshall and Mike Gabbard voting against it.
"It's a step down a path that I don't think we should be taking," said Djou. "I think it's going to be fraught with problems."
Marshall countered the argument that because there already is advertising on trucks, it might as well be on buses, too.
"That's like saying, 'We already have stealing, so we might as well make it legal,' " she said.
Mayor Jeremy Harris said he would have to see how the final version of the bill is written, but said he would veto a bill that simply allowed advertising on the sides of buses.
The small amount of money the advertising would bring in would not be worth the trade-off, Harris said.
With the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform displaying aborted fetuses on the side of a billboard truck and suing for the right to tow similar ads through the sky over O'ahu, Planned Parenthood and others warned that if this law passes, the bus will be the center's next forum for its anti-abortion message.
The California-based center did not return phone calls.
Under the First Amendment, the city may not be able to write a bus advertising law that could restrict the content of the advertising or any other ads that some may find offensive.
"If you want city buses with big pictures of mutilated fetuses on the side, I just don't think that's appropriate," the mayor said.
Dela Cruz said with a circuit-breaker included in the bus fare bill, a swift decision on the advertising no longer is necessary, but he suggested that holding a hearing to gather information on the issue would be helpful.
Reach Treena Shapiro at 525-8070 or firstname.lastname@example.org.