In a sponsorship program launched this week, the state Department of Transportation hopes to generate a few million dollars a year from the sale of advertising and naming rights that will stick corporate messages and logos on highway shoulders, rest areas, ferry boats and DOT websites.
First in line for the new commercial treatment will be DOT’s yellow Incident Management Assistance Patrol trucks, whose drivers rescue stranded motorists and help clear accidents on busy freeways.
“This collaboration uses our private-sector funds to help improve safety, and it helps offset our operating costs,” Virginia Mabry, who heads DOT’s Priority Projects Office, told members of the state Board of Transportation on Wednesday. “The draw for IMAP is that a State Farm or a Triple-A can come out and have their identity on the highway and be seen helping people.”
The sponsorship venture parallels other efforts to augment the state’s primary transportation revenue source: the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, which has been flat in recent years.
DOT already promotes businesses that pay for highway litter removal, putting their logos on blue Sponsor-A-Highway signs. The transportation board approved a sponsorship policy Thursday to set guidelines for broader commercial efforts that eventually may include the 511 traveler information phone service, ferry vessels and buildings, highway beautification projects, rest areas and welcome centers, print and electronic publications, weigh stations and smartphone applications.
DOT officials are preparing to invite marketing firms to bid for the right to recruit a corporate sponsor for North Carolina’s fleet of 82 IMAP trucks. The new sponsor logos probably won’t show up on state freeways before 2016.
Ten other states sell naming rights for their freeway helper trucks. State Farm Insurance pays the Georgia DOT $1.8 million a year to put its logos on vehicles, driver uniforms and promotional highway signs for yellow “HERO” trucks that patrol Atlanta-area freeways.
North Carolina officials are cautious about predicting how much money DOT will rake in from new sponsorship deals. A KPMG study commissioned by DOT said IMAP naming rights could be worth $800,000 to $2.2 million per year, along with $1 million to $2 million for sponsorship of the 511 service.
Mabry said an IMAP sponsorship would probably bring North Carolina less than Georgia’s $1.8 million. But transportation board member Jim Palermo of Boone was more optimistic.
“I think we should have our expectations high,” Palermo said. “This is a mobile billboard.”
Board member Cheryl McQueary of Greensboro said drivers might find it hard to recognize that an IMAP driver actually works for DOT – even while driving a truck adorned with multicolor corporate logos.
“What kind of communication plan do we have in place to make certain that people know this is a DOT employee and they’re there to help?” McQueary asked.
Rodger Rochelle, DOT technical services administrator, said DOT officials will be careful in working out the truck design details.
“They’re going to have more stickers on them, but by and large our DOT emblem is still going to be there,” Rochelle said. “The trucks are still going to be yellow.”
Rochelle said he expected to solicit the IMAP bids late this year, and bids for 511 service sponsorship a few months later.
Coastal legislators who want to make all state ferries toll-free have argued that DOT could make millions from the sale of vessel naming rights and advertising aimed at ferry passengers. But a DOT consultant predicted no more than $145,000 a year from ferry sponsorships and ads.
No gas tax substitute
Steady improvement in automobile fuel economy has cooled gas tax collections nationwide, but so far North Carolina’s robust growth is forestalling the expected drop in overall gas tax receipts here. While the state population grows about 3 percent each year, DOT gas tax receipts increased by only 1 percent during the fiscal year that ended June 30, to $1.89 billion.
DOT officials and political leaders have shied away from proposing big new taxes, such as a fee based on miles instead of gallons, that could be expected to grow while the gas tax shrinks.
But there could be significant dollars involved in a separate DOT money item that legislators quietly inserted into the state budget this year. DOT’s Division of Motor Vehicles was directed to develop a new schedule of fees to recover all direct and indirect costs of all administrative hearings.
Drivers already pay fees to have their licenses reinstated after revocation for impaired driving or other offenses, for example; the new mandate would require them to also pay for the hearing where their request for reinstatement is considered.
“If we turn around and pass all that cost to the customer, you would see hearing fees that are pretty high,” Kelly J. Thomas, the DMV commissioner, told transportation board members.
“The question is, who is going to swallow that?” said board member Andrew M. Perkins Jr. of Greensboro. “There’s going to be an upheaval, and it’s going to be a major issue.”