May 24th, 2011

Electronic billboards set for tollway oases

Chicago Tribune

Motorists who drive the interstates and the Illinois Tollway have been seeing them for the last year or two: those towering electronic billboards, which advertise everything from car dealers to fast food restaurants, that are so bright they stand out even during the day.

The advertising soon will be even more prominent under a plan presented Monday to the Illinois Tollway to mount 41-by-12 digital signs on the walls of five of the seven tollway oases, just above and to the right of traffic.

The Federal Highway Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation have approved permits for the signs. Tollway officials need only sign off on a sublease agreement between the oases’ operator, SFI Chicago Tollway LLC, and the advertising firm, CBS Outdoor Inc. No target date has been set for that yet, officials said.

The electronic billboards are the latest bid to make money for the once-foundering oases system.

“These billboards will help drive traffic into the oases,” said Mitch Matson, vice president of CBS Outdoor.

SFI took ownership of the oases last year after the former operator, Los Angeles-based Wilton Partners, struggled to rent spaces to vendors and defaulted on its lease with the tollway in 2008 It subsequently lost them in foreclosure.

U.S. Equities Asset Management LLC, which manages the oases for SFI, said Monday it has been adding tenants and building clientele by improving the facilities and even adding farmers markets.

Under terms of the lease, SFI pays the tollway $743,000 a year, plus 1 percent of gross sales into an oases maintenance account. SFI assumed the 25-year lease Wilton signed in 2002.

Officials were mum on how much revenue the billboards will generate for SFI. But it’s highly unlikely the tollway will ever see any of the proceeds because the ad revenue will go to SFI, under terms of its lease.

The tollway might be allowed to post public service announcements on the billboards but only if advertising time is available, Matson said. He added that the signs could be used to flash emergency warnings and Amber Alerts, which have been done on CBS billboards in other cities.

Several studies have been conducted in various states showing that the electronic signs do not decrease motorists safety, Matson said.

Tollway Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs said the tollway and SFI would seek a local university to conduct an independent safety study of the oases billboards, once they are in place.

The signs would be installed on the sides of the Lake Forest, O’Hare, Hinsdale, Des Plaines and Belvidere oases.

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