‘This road brought to you by…’

As the state budget inches closer to passage by the General Assembly, the Virginia Department of Transportation is hoping to raise money by selling the naming rights for roads, bridges and highway stretches.

“We look for revenue generation opportunity where we can, and we try to be creative with it,” VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said.

She said it has been a struggle for VDOT to maintain Virginia’s infrastructure in light of the department’s financial troubles.

“Our resources and revenues have been dwindling over the years,” she said, noting that a 1986 gas tax increase was the most recent serious increase in revenue. “When we can find innovative ways to partner with the private sector and generate some revenue, we try to do that.”

On March 10, the final day of the regular legislative session, the General Assembly passed two identical bills authorizing the Commonwealth Transportation Board, VDOT’s governing body, to sell the naming rights for such facilities as roads and ferries.

“The Board shall develop and approve guidelines governing the naming of highways, bridges, interchanges, and other transportation facilities by private entities and the applicable fees for such naming rights. Such fees shall be deposited in the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund,” according to Senate Bill 639 and House Bill 1248.

The legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature, says roads and facilities that already commemorate someone or carry a special name cannot be renamed “unless such naming incorporates the previous name.”

Moreover, “No name shall be eligible for the naming rights … if it in any way reasonably connotes anything that (i) is profane, obscene, or vulgar; (ii) is sexually explicit or graphic; (iii) is excretory related; (iv) is descriptive of intimate body parts or genitals; (v) is descriptive of illegal activities or substances; (vi) condones or encourages violence; or (vii) is socially, racially, or ethnically offensive or disparaging.”

Early projections of the prices and sales of road naming rights show that the program could raise a few million dollars per year and $273 million over the next 20 years. That’s a mere fraction of VDOT’s annual budget, which is $4.76 billion for fiscal year 2012.

Still, every little bit helps, officials say.

That’s especially true as the General Assembly holds a special session to craft a state budget for the next two years. The House and Senate have passed competing budgets, and a conference committee is trying to hammer out a compromise acceptable to both chambers.

The Senate version of the budget would delay the opening of tolls in Hampton Roads until 2014. This could cost the state an estimated $125 million. VDOT could offset some of the loss by selling the naming rights for roads.

Virginia already has developed a naming rights program for its highway rest stops, slated to begin later this year.

The central question is whether putting a name on a bridge or road will be attractive to consumers, especially to businesses seeking to expand their brand’s reach.

“I think the companies will love it,” said Bridget Camden, a professor of advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Every time someone hits MapQuest, the name would come up.”

Camden, who spent 20 years in the advertising world working with companies such as IBM, BP and American Express, said companies initially might jump at the chance to brand a highway with their logo if the price is right. But certain factors could deter businesses from buying the naming rights.

“I think it could backfire on them if they can’t control the stretch of road,” Camden said. For instance, roads can have problems ranging from litter to prostitution – and those things could hurt a company’s image.

Camden said controlling the “brand message” and associations tied to a company is key for effective advertising.

“Every company wants their name associated with something positive, but what if that stretch of highway is accident prone?” she asked.

One possible solution is that companies not only buy the naming rights to the road or highway but also “adopt” the stretch and do some basic maintenance.

“Big corporations become very conscious about how they look, so maybe it will be incentive to keep the roads clean,” Camden said.
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