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STAP:  Trojan Horse or Transportation Program?

LA TRANSPO - At first glance the Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP) program would appear to be the answer to years-long neglect of the needs of LA’s transit riders. 

Indeed, those behind the plan understood that crafting a program presented as a transportation program would easily garner the support of transportation advocates, public transit users and the general public.  And they were right. 

However, what none of those supporting the STAP program realized, was that the STAP program was being used by certain City Hall interests to accomplish a hidden goal.  And, the long-lasting impact of the program will very likely not be to provide that much-needed shade and shelter for transit riders; its additional negative impact will long be seen and felt as the program that removed long-standing protections against advertising structures on the PUBLIC right-of-way across the City. 

Because many of those promoting STAP are doing so in order to deceptively sneak through the approval of a new LA Municipal Code (introduced very quietly within the language of the STAP program Mitigated Negative Declaration and never presented in any STAP public outreach programs or hearings), little attention is being paid to the actual details of the STAP transit shelter program that is being proposed for approval.  And as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.  And there are many devils residing within STAP. 

If the public knew that the program is not the same program that was rolled out in countless “public outreach” sessions, or the same program presented in shelter demonstrations on display in various locations they would not be so eager to lobby for its adoption “as-is.”  If program supporters read the contract for the program, they will find that they are supporting an unfunded program, a program whose staff needed to implement it has been removed, and that the program elements they were shown are no longer REQUIRED elements of the program.  Many elements are now deemed to be “secondary.”  These include the urban panels, kiosks, and eLockers.  The very impressive scooter docks, 5G, Public Wi-FI, hydration stations, cooling stations and solar, presented to the public are all “optional” and will depend on, according to the CAO’s report, on the “amount of funding that the City Council and Mayor are willing to provide for capital costs.”  

How realistic are the stated revenue and expense projections?  What happens if these are not met?  In recent Council Committee discussion, those projections were brought under scrutiny with the Councilmembers admitting that revenue projections were dependent upon the recommended vendor, Tranzito, acknowledging that projections from ads on existing shelters could not be made without a successful negotiation that addresses a ban on such ads per the current street furniture contract.  They were already talking about terminating the contract if Tranzito did not deliver the Minimum Annual Guarantee.  Why enter into a contract that is based on overly ambitious and unrealistic financial modeling?  The CAO’s report, written by a unit within the Mayor’s office, the likely driving force behind the hidden Los Angeles Municipal Code’s (LAMC) insertion in the program, called out many of the contract’s deficiencies. 

The STAP program before the Council requires over $230 million to fund it based upon today’s estimates.  On hand is $ 1 million from the City and a $5 million commitment from Metro.  How many shelters will that provide to shelter sweltering Angelenos of those needed? 

It appears that STAP is a TROJAN HORSE designed to serve as a cover for the adoption of a new LA Municipal Code to remove long-existing protections of the PUBLIC right-of-way from advertising structures and commercial messaging.  It is an advertising program, not the transportation program it is being presented to be. 

The STAP program does not need this new LAMC for there is an existing specific LAMC to allow for advertising structures in the PUBLIC right-of-way.   The City has found the perfect vehicle within which to hide their new LAMC.  The plot could not have been better penned by a mystery writer. 

And, because the underlying purpose of STAP is to promote the LAMC, little attention is being paid to the details of STAP as a program to benefit transit riders.  IF that were the true purpose of STAP, then riders and the public should be provided the answers to many unanswered questions. 

IF serving transit users were the true purpose of STAP, then where is the money and why haven’t there been pledges to reinvest at least a set percentage of the advertising revenues for additional shade and shelter structures – knowing that the goal of having just 3,000 shelters in a City that currently has approximately 8,000 transit stops is hardly an ambitious mission?  In fact, it is an embarrassingly low goal for a program and contract designed to last 10 to 20 years.  Without locking in a plan for reinvestment of funds, those revenues may be used for any purpose.  Transit advocates should be demanding more.  

If promoting access to transit is one of the goals of the program, then why would the City introduce changing digital advertising messaging that change every 10 seconds at locations designed to attract pedestrians and those who use transit?   Who decided that a 10-second refresh rate was a “safe” change rate that would not distract drivers and lead to accidents?  Why wasn’t there any effort to involve transportation experts to review current studies of digital signage and driver distraction in an effort to diminish dangers to our most vulnerable street users?   At what point does Vision Zero become Zero Vision? 

StreetsLA staff did their best to hide the impact of the recommended contract by telling the public that “only” 25 percent of planned advertising panels would be digital.  However, what they failed to reveal is that the recommended contract contains a total of 6,634 ad panels (!), with 1,952 of those being digital panels.  While the City has failed to release the promised chart comparing the competing bidders’ key elements, it appears that at least one other bidders’ program proposed to have nearly 5,000 less panels and over 1,100 less digital ad faces.  How much are we willing to trade our shared visual environment and open space for ad revenues?  How much is too much?  

If promoting pedestrian friendly streetscapes is a goal of the City and one meant to contribute to walkability and transit use is, then why would there be an effort to litter our sidewalks, parkways, and streets with more and more advertising structures?  Why are we allowing protections of the PUBLIC right-of-way to be removed in exchange for a share of advertising revenues?   How did the Board of Public Works and Department staff come to recommend the approval of a contract that allows the unfettered use of our public right-of-way to be used for advertising at the sole discretion of a politically-appointed Board of Public Works? 

If the intent of the STAP program is to provide shade and shelter to communities that need it most, how then can the proponents rationalize the fact that the first rounds of shelters will be installed in locations that will deliver the highest advertising revenues where heat is a lesser factor?  If those funds are so needed to finance the program’s operation, and if there are few City budget dollars available to expand the program in times when budgets are lean (and in a coming recession), how long will riders in Pacoima, Sun Valley, Canoga Park, Northridge, Chatsworth, Reseda, North Hills, and so many of our warmest and less affluent, poorer communities have to wait for their fair share of shade? 

If the Public Works staff offered to take under consideration ways for Angelenos to “opt-in” (or “opt-out” as a less desirable option) of having their cell phones identified and tracked by the digital ad panels, why was there never any response to the public’s repeated concerns voiced about the tracking, data collection and storage of information to be done by STAP structures?  Privacy and security concerns have not been answered sufficiently.  Protections have not been presented.  

The City Council will very soon be faced with taking action on the STAP program.  It could happen as soon as this week.  They cannot make changes or improvements to it; they may either approve it or send it back to Public Works.  In failing to approve it they can request a number of changes to be incorporated and actions to be taken.  These include answering many of the questions raised above, and building in language that will provide transit users and all Angelenos with additional safeguards needed.  The Council would be wise to consider: 

Requiring annual reporting of contract performance measures, audit of borrowing from trust or specialized fund sources, generated revenue from advertising, and appropriation of general and any grant funding.

Before construction a list of bus shelters to priority communities be provided to the Council and neighborhood councils with a timeline of installation.

Establishment of a citizens advisory committee to ensure no conflict with LA City’s Vision Zero plan especially traffic, pedestrian and bicyclist safety. 

Requesting a review of the proposed contract by the CLA’s office. 

Requesting an opinion from the City Attorney’s office as to the possible impact adoption of the new LAMC and implementation of the Tourism and Convention Bureau’s proposed “IKE” digital ad kiosk program and Metro’s digital billboard program will have on the City’s authority to regulate off-site signage in the future and whether this will serve to undermine that hard-won legal authority.  

Requesting DOT evaluation of studies linking changing digital message structures with driver distraction and accidents and preparing recommendations for appropriate refresh rates/change rates for any future digital changing signage (possibly specific to types of street settings).  The Council’s Transportation Committee was not involved in the review of the program. 

Requesting collaboration with the Planning Dept. and Planning Commission who have been the bodies responsible for developing off-site sign regulations.  They have been locked out of current consideration of the measure before the City.  

With a contract that will last at least a decade or two, it is critical that the City get it right.  Instead, it appears that many of the same mistakes made in creating the current contract are being repeated once again.  It was the City that wrote the current contract with its overly optimistic goals and convoluted implementation terms.  They are at it again. 

The citizens of Los Angeles and all those who travel its streets and on its transit should not have to wait another 20 years to get a shot at fashioning a street amenity program that addresses Angelenos’ needs.  We can and should do better – much better.  But to do so, the Council will need to come to grips with the fact that they must have the courage to publicly oppose a program that is riddled with unsupported assumptions, unsound financial projections and thus was designed NOT to serve transit users adequately.  They must call out its deficiencies and demand more.  They must avoid taking the path of least resistance (some are said to be tired of STAP) which will saddle the City with a lousy contract that endangers Angelenos’ lives, a contract subject to legal challenge on many fronts, a contract that will open the public right-of-way to a future of sign blight and worse.  There is peril ahead:  It is much easier to adopt the program and its contract and pretend to have addressed the needs of transit riders and to ignore all the negative consequences that will follow its adoption.   

Although hundreds of comments have been submitted to oppose STAP and the CIS statements from countless Neighborhood Councils have been submitted in opposition, their voices have not been heard.  Angelenos need to let their Councilmembers and the Mayor know now that the STAP program’s many weaknesses and hidden agenda have been revealed and that we demand better.  

Wake up, LA, before the Trojan Horse carries the day.  

PUBLIC COMMENTS MAY BE ENTERED INTO EACH OF THE TWO STAP COUNCIL FILES: CF 20-1536 and CF 20-1536-S2.   

Council President Nury Martinez should also be informed of opposition to the program and contract:

[email protected] 

Documentation:  For those who want to get more specific and compare the STAP marketing narrative to the reality of what is actually written in the contract:  

  • Required and Optional elements: Section 3.5, pages 8-9 (and see table on p. 9)
  • Qty of elements: Section 3.5, table on page 9, and for qty of displays, see Exhibit A, Section 6 (no page numbers on Exhibit A, but the relevant table is on page 61 of the PDF of the updated STAP contract).
  • Funding: Section 6.4 on page 20 describes the City’s responsibilities, including that the “City is responsible for all Capital Costs associated with STAP” which are set forth therein.  Section 10 on pages 24-28 states that “It is the intent of this Program for the City to identify, secure, and furnish to the Contractor, funds necessary to pay for Program Capital Costs.  The Contractor shall not be obligated for any capital expenditures until funding is approved and committed by the City
  • MAG (and revenue share): Section 10.4, pages 29-31
  • Use of existing ad panels: Section 3.5 on page 8 describe Contractor’s obligation to “rehabilitate and relocate Existing Street Furniture” and Section 10.4.2 on pages 29-30 describes what the MAG amount shall be “In the event that Existing Street Furniture” is or is not “used for the sale of advertising.” 
  • Refurbishing of Existing Bus Shelters: Exhibit A, Sections 2 and 3 describe the Contractor’s obligation to refurbish and relocate bus shelters at the City’s expense (no page numbers on Exhibit A, but this is on pages 56-58 of the PDF of the updated STAP contract).  

 

(Barbara Broide is President of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Blvd. Homeowners Association. She is also a Board Members of the Coalition for a Scenic Los Angeles.)