CITYWIDE — The Los Angeles City Attorney came out strongly against legislation proposed by a Santa Monica assemblywoman that would put digital signs on the sides of buses, saying that the move would negatively impact Angelenos.

In a letter to Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) dated Aug. 25, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen A. Trutanich wrote that the legislation constituted “a dangerous and untested expansion” of a vehicle code section that allows for “illuminated signs” on vehicles.

The bill extends the current definition of “illuminated sign,” which allows only the lighted identification of a bus’s route, to include 31 square feet of digital advertising on both sides of every bus.

Those ads could change every 2.7 seconds, or include text moving across the screen in the same amount of time.

Such signage has never been used in California before, and causes concern that drivers could be distracted by the glowing signs.

“We don’t have enough information to give us the comfort that these buses with Las Vegas-type signs driving down Los Angeles city streets will not pose a public safety threat,” said Chief Deputy City Attorney Bill Carter. “We haven’t seen a study or environmental report that would provide necessary information that the residents of Los Angeles would be protected.”

Although the bill proposes a five-year pilot project only on Santa Monica’s Big Blue buses, the bus routes travel far outside of Santa Monica city limits and into Los Angeles, Carter said.

“The greatest impact will be in the city of Los Angeles,” he said.

Furthermore, according to the letter, officials in Santa Monica have rejected proposals to limit the billboard to Santa Monica’s 8.3 square miles, and have also shot down an operating agreement that would give Los Angeles the ability to regulate the signs when buses cross over residential neighborhoods, run on city streets past sunset or were determined by law enforcement and transportation officials to be unsafe.

Santa Monica is still open to negotiating an operating agreement with Los Angeles, said Kate Vernez, spokeswoman for the City Manager’s Office.

“The timing of the letter seems unfortunate,” she said.

Santa Monica has already committed to placing the digital signs on the pedestrian-facing side of the bus, so that, unless the bus turns left, drivers would most likely not be exposed to the glowing, shifting signs.

“We know the technology has been used successfully in New York and Chicago,” Vernez said. “It shouldn’t be a problem here.”

Until they see a safety study, and specific promises about sign placement written into the language of the bill or a memorandum of understanding, L.A. officials won’t be happy, Carter said.

Dennis Hathaway, a Venice resident and president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, is opposed to the signs, and would also like to see the bill include provisions regarding their placement.

“I get very wary of public officials who say we have the right to do something, but we’re not going to do it,” he said. “If you have the right to do it, you should not be shocked if down the road they do because the ads on the traffic side get more exposure, and probably more money for them.”

Even limited application of the digital signs could be dangerous if they distract drivers at intersections, he said.

If residents of Los Angeles share the perceived burdens of the signs, they will also reap the benefits.

The impetus behind the legislation to create the pilot project was to freeze fare increases by raising money in new and innovative ways.

“This is about keeping our fares low, and providing an excellent service for the entire region,” Vernez said.

Hathaway didn’t contest the importance of the service, just the method Santa Monica officials seem prepared to embrace to keep costs down.

“There are some ways that are just not acceptable to raise revenue,” he said.

Carter said that L.A. decision makers will have to weigh their next move if the language of the bill doesn’t get changed, or a memorandum of understanding isn’t reached.

“We want to work with the city of Santa Monica. We’re a good partner with them,” he said. “This is about public safety.”

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