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Why not license roadway solicitation?

An ACLU challenge has Albuquerque's ban on soliciting from medians on hold. Here, a panhandler balances along the median on Jefferson at Osuna. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

An ACLU challenge has Albuquerque’s ban on soliciting from medians on hold. Here, a panhandler balances along the median on Jefferson at Osuna. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

While I agree that trying to eliminate roadway panhandling is not a statistical safety exercise, I do not agree (with the Aug. 10 op-ed by ACLU communications director Micah McCoy) that panhandlers are exercising a First Amendment right.

When I think of freedom of speech, I think of soapboxes and people trying to convince everyone or no one in particular in a public square. Panhandlers are a for-profit business activity in a public space dedicated to transportation. Advertising and other business activities are strictly prohibited for hopefully obvious reasons of equal access/vs. extreme clutter and diversion from official safety signs.

It’s not only for liability – one panhandler obviated the then-new Alameda Boulevard smart signal corridor by pushing the pedestrian crossing button over and over to stop traffic so he could solicit, thus unnecessarily snarling about 12,000 commuters to the West Side. Sheriff’s deputies did remove him when we called, although I now wonder under what authority, besides common sense?

I’ve written before about the delicate nuance of political signs in the roadway right-of-way as basically temporary nuisances like litter waiting only for that agency to clean it up. As a public road manager, our team was vigorous about clearing advertising of any kind, including political signage, that blocked any view, and one of the most difficult situations was a business that wanted to officially adopt a median.

We figured out how to simply allow roadside adoptions, but medians, and an associated sign for the business, proved near impossible. That wound up being a major agreement document that allowed only licensed, insured – $2 million policy – maintenance professionals, such as a landscape service, to do the work. Why? It was a huge liability to the agency to ALLOW anyone without full compliance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the national default standards, to operate anything within that “clear zone.”

Let us put the argument on the other foot. If the city doesn’t attempt to prohibit panhandlers and someone does have an accident because of distraction or inability to see something, albeit a low-probability/high-consequence event, should the city be liable? Will it be liable? Will the argument be made that the city tacitly ALLOWED it by “abandoning its pursuit of anti-panhandling ordinances?” Of course it will. The city agency, on behalf of all taxpayers, has a duty to continue to find the legal means to eliminate roadway solicitation of any kind. I’d recommend licensing and permits, the requirements of which are met by roadway workers of every kind everyday. In fact – hint, hint – I believe they are not being met by roadway solicitors already.