EBR Metro Council dealing with bus bench headaches

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Barry Cowan, an assistant archivist with LSU Libraries Special Collections, gets ready to board a CATS bus at Government Street at Edison Street Tuesday, next to a bench sporting an advertisement. The Metro Council is sorting through a situation regarding exactly who will be franchised to display advertising on random bus benches at stops not served by covered shelters.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Barry Cowan, an assistant archivist with LSU Libraries Special Collections, gets ready to board a CATS bus at Government Street at Edison Street Tuesday, next to a bench sporting an advertisement. The Metro Council is sorting through a situation regarding exactly who will be franchised to display advertising on random bus benches at stops not served by covered shelters.

Hundreds of benches lined with advertisements on them are set up in public rights of way across East Baton Rouge Parish. Sometimes they are at a bus stop; other times not. Often the placement is entirely random.

The benches have been a recurring source of frustration for Metro Council members, some of whom consider them to be poorly maintained eyesores. It is an issue they say they hope to deal with at an upcoming meeting to decide which companies will have the right to place the benches in the public rights of way.

There are differences of opinion, though, on what to do. Some council members say they want to avoid giving one company a monopoly on the market, as they’ve done for 30 years; others worry that awarding contracts to multiple companies will lead to more junky-looking benches placed all around the parish.

Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said the unattractive benches devalue the community and that she would like to see a moratorium on awarding additional bus bench contracts until standards are put in place.

“There’s no uniformity, no structure, no design mandates,” Edwards said. “This could just be a proliferation of advertising that we don’t need in Baton Rouge.”

Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center For Planning and Excellence, describes the bus benches as “visual litter.”

She added, “I see these things on every corner crop up, sometimes in places where there is no transit stop there. It just cheapens the street scape of the city.”

For 30 years, only businessman Richard Tugwell had a franchise agreement to place the benches. He earns income from the advertisements, and pays a fee to the city-parish for being allowed to place the benches in the public right-of-way.

The city-parish took in $16,670 from the agreement last year, which is based on 10 percent of the advertising revenue that is generated.

Tugwell’s contract expires at the end of the year and the council last month approved an eight-year contract with a different company, Giraffe Advertising, for bus benches. The new company was asked to adhere to stricter rules for bench placement and maintenance.

After Giraffe’s contract was approved, three businesses, including Tugwell’s business have also asked for eight-year bus bench contracts.

“We have opened up a can of worms,” said Edwards, who lamented the fact that the city-parish has in the past failed to implement standards or protocols for bus benches.

There currently are about 2,000 bus stops in East Baton Rouge Parish, which is a number subject to change, according to CATS interim CEO Bob Mirabito. He noted that bus routes are changing next year, which means bus stops will also be shifted around.

Mirabito also said he thinks there are too many stops now, and anticipates reducing the number by about 500 stops.

CATS is building 100 covered bus shelters along routes, but that leaves several uncovered stops that can be serviced with a bench.

While the bus benches in future will have to be placed to correspond with CATS stops, it’s currently the Metro Council’s authority to grant franchise agreements because it involves use of city-parish rights of way.

Tugwell has 300 benches that he would presumably be allowed to keep if his contract is renewed, and Giraffe Advertising CEO Brooke Barnett said he plans to place 600 more over the next five years.

However, Barnett doesn’t think there’s enough advertising business for four companies to share, and he’s concerned about how the other bus bench companies coming in will impact his plans.

Barnett said his contract mandates that he only place bus benches on the CATS routes and that he put his company’s name and contact information on the bench in case a bench needs to be moved or maintained.

Councilman Joel Boé said in retrospect, the council should have considered issuing a formal Request for Proposals to award a single bus bench contract to the most qualified company. He also said the Capital Area Transit System should be in charge of awarding the contract.

“Having multiple companies do it could be a recipe for disaster,” he said. “How do you enforce whose bench goes where? Is it first come, first serve?”

Boé, who sponsored the request to approve Giraffe Advertising’s contract, said he didn’t realize there were so many bench companies in the area that would apply. He said he now has concerns the city-parish might have set itself up for a lawsuit.

“Could we approve two companies but not the other two?” he said. “Fairness is going to be questioned if that’s the case.”

DiResto agreed that using an RFP to award a single contract could have saved the city-parish from some legal headaches.

“In cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami, we’ve see all these cases that were costly to the city because of the way contracts were awarded, and not having a set policy for vendors and for franchises,” DiResto said.

Assistant Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson said the Metro Council has the discretion to grant as many or few franchises as it deems fit for the public interest.

“But that wouldn’t preclude a rejected applicant from filing suit,” she said. “However, in my opinion, they would not prevail.”

She also said that bus bench contracts could awarded as an RFP, but the council has the discretion to handle it as a franchise.

Councilman John Delgado said he takes issue with critiques that bus benches are “visual litter.” He has previously noted that the bus system is in desperate need of proper bus stops. He said he thinks there’s enough stops to share between several bench companies.

“The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned,” he said, adding that he would want new contracts to include the strict provisions Giraffe Advertising agreed to. “Let them get out there, we have plenty of bus stops that need benches.”

The Metro Council will consider the approval of three bus franchise agreements at its Oct. 9 meeting.