Sunday, March 26, 2006 | 7:01 a.m.
Things change quickly on the Las Vegas Strip, and sometimes the changes are for the worse. One such development is the appearance of giant advertising signs attached to trucks or being towed, or even covering the entire sides of double-deck buses.
I'm a relative newcomer to Las Vegas, having arrived here to cover the city's casino gaming business about seven years ago. But in mid-1999 there were no mobile billboards, no shrink-wrapped 14-feet-high, 48-foot-long buses bearing giant advertising messages.
I'm no prude, and I know the First Amendment protects more than political speech, so while I don't like the messages conveyed by many of these signs - and the services so bluntly offered on them - I recognize that the content of these signs can't be regulated.
Even the signs that read "Hot babes direct to your room - Girls that want to meet you" with an obligatory phone number are protected, even if the services being advertised flip a figurative finger at Clark County's prohibition on prostitution.
While the content of these signs is beyond the ability of our county commissioners to regulate, what can be regulated are the sign-bearing businesses themselves.
The Strip is the economic engine of our valley and our state. When visitors come to Las Vegas they are looking to experience the billion-dollar resorts and their best-in-the-world offerings.
Anything that detracts from that experience should be scrutinized.
MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni, the top executive of the Strip's biggest resort operator, last fall called for the Las Vegas Monorail to help relieve congestion in the Strip corridor by extending its line to McCarran International Airport and the west side of the Strip - moves the monorail quickly announced its intention to pursue.
Mobile billboards undeniably add to the congestion on the Strip. They drive more slowly than cars, and take up a lot of space. And they block views of the fountains, volcanos and the multibillion-dollar streetscape that resort operators created to capture visitors' imaginations.
The mobile billboards have quickly multiplied from just a couple in 2001 to as many as 40 now, the new industry's biggest operator estimates. Marla Letizia, owner of Mobile Billboards of Las Vegas, said her company has grown from one to nine trucks in that time.
She says that there should be no more than 20 to 30 such trucks operating on the Strip, but says that if county commissioners don't take action to limit the number of mobile billboards operating, the success of the medium and the ability of fly-by-night operators to enter the business will quickly send the number to 100 or more.
While Letizia has an obvious business incentive to limit competition into the fast-growing market she created and still dominates, she said county regulation is imperative for safety reasons as well.
The mobile billboards operated by many of her competitors are lighted with power provided by gasoline generators. Her trucks aren't. "If there's an impact with the generators, there's a bomb going off on the Strip," she said.
Other competitors use towed trailers rather than the single-body vehicles she uses. If the wind catches one of those trailers, the sign will act as a sail and send the trailer sideways, potentially careening into pedestrians.
Her drivers are drug-tested three or four times a year, and her trucks are well maintained, she says. Without county regulation of the business, her competitors won't have the same commitment to safety, she says.
Safe or unsafe, I don't like mobile billboards. They obstruct traffic, move too slow and block the views that our visitors flock here to see.
But if they're allowed to remain, they should at least be limited in number and made to operate safely, similar to the way we already regulate taxis and limos. County commissioners should act before the problem gets even more out of hand.