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Leaping Lizards Over the GWB

Jan 7, 2007

By ALFRED P. DOBLIN

I HAVE GREAT NEWS for you unless you are the mayor of Fort Lee: New Jersey hasn't saved a bundle on auto insurance, but it has sold billboards above the tollbooths at the George Washington Bridge.

On Wednesday, Geico, the lizard-loving insurance company, is scheduled to unveil mammoth billboards above the upper-deck tollbooths to the GWB. Another billboard will top the lower-level tollbooths and three smaller signs will be displayed on approach roads. Fort Lee Mayor Jack Alter is not pleased.

He said, "To erect a billboard under the nose of our luxury apartments is a disgrace." I'm sorry, mayor, but I don't agree. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about the GWB tollbooths sans Geico. They're tollbooths, mayor, not Frank Lloyd Wright prairie houses. I wouldn't want to look at signage that says E- ZPASS and CASH either. What's the big deal about the billboards?

I know Lady Bird Johnson would disagree. She effectively advocated against billboard proliferation in the Sixties.

If Geico were mounting an inflatable gecko, its mascot, under one of the bridge's tower arches, that would be offensive. But the reality is that advertisements and billboards are an important revenue stream for mass transit. Would a bus look better without an ad? Are the PATH tubes defaced by the creative advertisements that when viewed from inside trains appear to be moving like a video?

Purists will say the GWB is sacred. After all, we just celebrated its 75th anniversary. Do we need to deface the bridge with ads? No. But the tollbooths are not part of the bridge. Views of the bridge from either side of the Hudson will not be diminished because the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the owner of the bridge, allowed billboards at toll plazas.

A creative approach

The PA will net $3.2 million for the signage. Maybe that's small change for the PA, but it's a creative approach to bring in new revenue. A spokesman for the PA says the signage will not block views of the bridge.

We cannot have it both ways expect public agencies to increase revenue and not increase user fees. If a Geico ad keeps the tolls from going up for awhile, that's a reasonable trade-off.

Riding across the upper deck of GWB can be a glorious experience. When a gigantic American flag is flown below the arches and the bridge is lit at night, it is a beautiful, stirring sight. That's going over the bridge. Approaching the bridge?

More often than not there are trailers loaded with pre-fab houses sitting in line waiting to be escorted with other heavy-load vehicles. Plastic cones direct cars into Byzantine traffic patterns at the approach to the tollbooths. All you see are brake lights, assuming you can see above a phalanx of SUVs. There is little that is pretty to look at.

Can Alter expect anyone to believe the view of the toll plaza is so wonderful now? People who bought luxury apartments with views of a toll plaza shouldn't be picky. And unless those apartments are on ground level, those residents will have views beyond the billboards and the traffic jams.

This is not slapping a McDonald's billboard at Lady Liberty's feet. This is a highly congested, major artery into Manhattan. I wonder only if $3.2 million was too low a figure. It's unfortunate the PA didn't hire former members of the McGreevey administration. They knew how to make money from billboards.

It's not a precedent

It would be inappropriate to deface the bridge with an ad, but does anyone object to the large advertisements in the middle of Grand Central Station? Do those advertisements lessen the experience of the Beaux Arts masterpiece? Maybe there are too many ads on buses, trains and on the sides of the road. That's the price of a free-market society. I'm waiting for the day my E-ZPass transponder tells me I want a Quarter Pounder with cheese as I pass through a tollbooth. Now that would be creative advertising.

Would I want to look out my living room window and see a big Geico ad? No. Would I want to look out my window and see traffic snarled for miles at a toll plaza? No. But the toll plaza has been there for a long time. If the tollbooths didn't stop people from buying luxury apartments in Fort Lee, the Geico billboards will not either.

To borrow from Geico, that's so easy a concept that even a caveman can understand it.

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Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of The Record. Contact him at doblin@northjersey.com.

(c) 2007 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.



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