Ford government plans 66 electronic billboards on Metrolinx rail lands

Metrolinx is seeking potential bids for urban advertising signage on the lands it owns. It could mean dozens of billboards on rail lands in Toronto and other major centres in the GTA.

The Progressive Conservatives are planning to allow dozens of new electronic billboards on Metrolinx rail lands in Toronto and other major centres, the Star has learned.

One day after Premier Doug Ford mused about installing billboards on 400-series highways to raise money for provincial coffers, Metrolinx quietly posted an “expression of interest” (EOI) seeking potential bids for urban advertising signage.

The provincial transit agency’s posting on MERX’s public tendering website appeared Tuesday.

“Metrolinx invites entities to submit proposals for the design, construction, management and maintenance of digital sign structures at specific locations along Metrolinx-owned lands including within the rail corridor and on station properties in order to generate revenue,” it reads.

“Proponents may submit a proposal to construct digital billboards on one or more locations. The selected proponents will be required to enter into lease agreements with Metrolinx related to the construction and operation of the digital billboards.”

Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office said Wednesday the Metrolinx pitch is “a separate initiative than the potential 400-series plans referenced by the premier.”

“There is a list of 66 potential properties included in the EOI and they include both station properties and sites within rail corridors,” Mulroney’s office said in an email.

“This list does not include any properties along 400-series highways.”

That means brightly lit electronic billboards in Liberty Village and other heavily populated GO Transit rail corridors in Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington, Hamilton, Pickering, Ajax, Oshawa, York Region, and Kitchener.

Expressions of interest must be submitted by April 16 — so far 11 companies and organizations have already downloaded the documentation needed to proceed with a bid.

Mulroney’s office said “Metrolinx expects to award locations in May,” but it remains to be seen when the 66 signs could start being installed.

“There is no cost to Metrolinx associated with this. Metrolinx media partners will cover the costs to design, build and operate these billboards,” the minister’s office.

Industry sources say such digital billboards can cost up to $1.5 million to build.

But municipal approvals can be difficult to get due to local residents’ concerns about the signs.

On Monday in Kitchener, Ford said he was inspired by the signage he sees on U.S. highways, like Interstate 75.

The premier said the vast open spaces along the 400-series are ripe for generating revenue for a province with a $9 billion budget deficit.

“That would create a couple hundred million more for the province that we could allocate to education and transportation,” he said.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer. So we have to think like the private sector does.”

The next day in Scarborough, Ford emphasized “we’re looking at all sorts of revenues.”

“What’s not an option for our government is to raise taxes and put a burden on the backs of the residents of Ontario. They’re taxed enough no matter if it’s provincial, municipal or federal taxes,” he said Tuesday.

“We have a lot of highways, right. We have 401, 400, 427, all the 400 series up to Hwy. 11. And we’ll see what the market bears.”

Green Leader Mike Schreiner expressed concern that the billboard scheme will be a reprise of past Ford boondoggles like the double-blue licence plates and the anti-carbon tax gas-pump decals.

The defective plates, illegible in certain lighting conditions, are being replaced with a white design and the mandatory stickers attacking federal carbon-pricing have adhesive issues and are frequently vandalized.

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“This is a worrying sign about the upcoming budget if the premier is more concerned with roadside gimmicks than tackling true emergencies like COVID-19,” said Schreiner, referring to the March 25 fiscal blueprint.

“We need real vision to lead the province through tough challenges, not roadside distractions copied from down south to make a quick buck,” he said,

“As if the premier hasn’t made enough gaffes with stickers and license plates, he’s now getting into the billboard business.”

Robert Benzie

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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