Our Losing Battle Against The Billboard Menace

MANILA, Philippines - In August 2010, the Metro Manila Authority (MMDA) was given the mandate to regulate billboards in the city. Acting as the enforcing agency of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the MMDA assumed the power to grant permits for new billboards, renew licenses of existing ones and dismantle those that are in violation of the national building code. With its new mandate, the MMDA went on an all-out assault to remove illegal billboards from our thoroughfares. We all remember how the billboards of Bench (Volcanoes) and Tanduay were pulled down for various violations of the law with much fanfare.

For a while, we all thought that the billboard menace would finally be put under control. In fact, I wrote about it last August with optimism, thinking that there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the campaign seems to have run out of steam. Billboards today are more plentiful than ever and continue to sprout in every available open space in the city without rhyme, reason or restraint.

The billboard industry is controlled by cash-rich outdoor advertising companies. They are the entities that lease (or own) the properties from where the billboards stand, and the entities that act as the sub-lessors to the advertisers. They are responsible for constructing the billboard metal frames and obtaining the necessary permits from both LGUs and the MMDA. The larger outdoor advertising companies such as Outcomm Media, Media Pool, Inc., Luneta Advertising, United Neon and HDI Adventures, etc., have banded together to form the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP). This precedes another grouping of billboard operators called the Outdoor Media Advocacy Group (OMAG). For all intents and purposes, both the OAAP and OMAG are lobby groups created to protect the interest of this lucrative industry.

Immediately following MMDA's offensive to dismantle illegal billboards, the OAAP sought the intervention of the courts to prevent the MMDA from doing so. A Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) was granted in favor of the powerful OAAP. This is the reason why billboards, whether or not in compliance with the building code, continue to mushroom all over the city with little recourse from the MMDA.

The good news is that the TRO was lifted with finality last January. But as expected, certain members of the lobby group continued to bombard both the MMDA and the Chairman (in his personal capacity) with court cases to prevent them from enforcing the regulations on outdoor advertising. To a large extent, this has tied the hands of the MMDA.

The local government units are also of little help. Early this year, the MMDA requested all Metro Manila Mayors to submit a list of billboards operators who were in violation of the law. Less than half of them heeded the request.

With the MMDA's hands tied and with some LGUs' apparent bias towards the outdoor advertising companies, billboards continue to multiply, virtually unregulated, to the detriment of the public. It is a dire situation.

Greed Over Public Good

The latest inventory of outdoor ads estimates that there are more than 2,000 billboards along EDSA alone and close to 5,000 within the expanse of Metro Manila. And while the national building code mandates a limitation to billboard sizes (which I believe is 80 square meters), some billboard operators blatantly mock our laws by erecting structures as large as 1,200 square meters.

In addition, our building code calls for substantial easements between billboards and roads, electric poles and other adjacent signages. It also prohibits them from obstructing windows and fire exits on building walls. Sources confirm that less than 50 out of the several hundred billboards in a major city north of the Pasig River are legit; the rest operate illegally. Some of them are even identified on the MMDA website. Their location, ad space booker, advertisers and type of violation are specified for public view. How they get away with it is a cause for suspicion.

Fact is, there is a lot of money to be made in billboard operations and obtaining the permits from government agencies is the biggest barrier to entry in this industry. A single billboard, measuring 400 square meters along Guadalupe, can fetch as much as P14.4 million a year in rental fees alone. Considering its only major operating expenses are land rental, power cost and maintenance costs, one can only imagine the kind of money each billboard operator makes. With the many billboards that are allowed to operate with one violation or another, critical minds can't help but suspect that some government officials, especially those in the local government levels, are on the take.

A Real Menace

As a tax paying resident of Metro Manila, I resent how our courts, local governments and the DPWH allow the few but powerful outdoor advertising companies to get away with "crime" to the detriment of the rest of us citizens. Why should the profits of a few private companies take precedence over the welfare of the people?

We, the residents of Metro Manila, have the right to enjoy the natural beauty of our city-its architecture and whatever is left of our greenery. Billboards deprive us of that. And as much as most of us would like to be proud of our city and "sell" it to friends and visitors abroad for its natural beauty, it's hard to do so when our streets are cluttered with graphic ugliness and rusting steel frames.

Even the Department of Tourism has categorically declared that Metro Manila cannot be sold as a tourist destination during the daytime due to its less than ideal environs. It has to make do with marketing the city for its nightlife. There is tremendous opportunity loss here.

Public safety is another issue. The public should not be made to bear the safety risks of billboard structures tumbling down on us as we saw during typhoon Milenyo in 2006. Lest we forget, a huge billboard along the Magallanes interchange came unhinged and fell on a passenger bus, causing death and damage to property during that storm. Another billboard fell on a van along Edsa, also causing the death of its driver. Billboards are still as dangerously close to public roads today as they were in 2006, and the disaster that befell us during Milenyo could very well happen again. It's unfortunate that former DPWH Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane, Jr. failed to enforce new legal provisions to tighten zoning laws and deter the further proliferation of billboards following the Milenyo disaster. His amended guidelines only sought to strengthen the materials used in billboard frame construction to the continued benefit of the outdoor advertising companies.

As it is, Metro Manila is already an overcrowded city choking on its own pollution. Billboards exacerbate the situation by blocking our airspace and trapping carbon dioxide from flowing out of our city byways. It creates a hazardous greenhouse effect that threatens the respiratory health of our citizens. Records show that respiratory maladies are already the number one ailment of Metro Manila residents.

In addition, billboards are made of gigantic tarpaulin material that is not biodegradable. It consumes massive amounts of space in our crowded waste landfills. When burnt, it produces toxic gases that are hazardous to health.

As far as light pollution goes, studies show that excessive light in the city destroys the ecological balance of its flora, fauna and animal life. Too much artificial light also inhibits the production of nitrate oxide, a vital gas produced by plants that helps fight smog.

More worrisome is the fact that billboards are guzzlers of electric power-a resource that is in critical supply these days. Think about it, each billboard requires an average of 4,000 watts from its metal halide lights. Multiply this by the 5,000 billboards in the Metro and the total power they collectively consume is a staggering 20 million watts. This power supply could very well be channeled to residential homes and industry.

It's important that we all realize what the billboard menace is costing us. We should all begin to hold our local governments, the DPWH and even the MMDA accountable for their seemingly weak position on the matter.

Stricter Enforcement Please!

I think there is a proper place for everything, including billboards. What I am really asking for here is stronger regulatory implementation in terms of zoning and the enforcement of the national building code without compromise.

The outdoor advertising companies have already proven that they are not capable of self-regulation. They are profit-driven private enterprises, after all. As for the local government units, most have also proven that they are not willing to look beyond the short-term financial gains that billboards provide in favor of the long-term health of the city and its residents.

This leads me to appeal to the executive branch-the Palace, the DPWH and the MMDA. We ask for the problem to be addressed with more urgency. We ask that the same fastidiousness shown in going after tax evaders be applied to erring outdoor advertising companies. There is little difference between them, after all. Both sabotage the health and welfare of the economy, the environment and the people.

Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail andrew_rs6@yahoo.com. Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.