The state Department of Transportation wants to turn North Carolina’s humble highway shoulders into steady money-makers.
There are already plans for advertising and naming rights that will transform DOT ferry boats and those yellow highway-helper trucks into moving billboards, to defray their operating costs.
And this week the Board of Transportation will consider new fees that would make developers – including a few board members – and other business people finally pay the full cost of services they receive, often free of charge, from DOT.
But DOT leaders don’t want to stop at merely recouping expenses. Now they also want to explore opportunities to make extra money that could be plowed into road maintenance and other needs.
This isn’t about charging service fees. It’s about collecting rent.
But DOT officials figure that some of these roadside chains would pay higher rates to enhance their presence at busy, competitive interchanges. DOT wants to turn the logo advertising program over to a private marketing firm that would set higher rates, drum up new customers and rake in the rents.• New lease fees for utilities. Telephone, power, cable and gas companies run their pipes and cables along highway shoulders for tens of thousands of miles. Why shouldn’t they pay for the privilege? Georgia’s DOT collects rent checks from utilities every six months.
North Carolina’s DOT is already looking at new permit fees that utilities would pay when they install the lines. The Peach State approach goes farther, turning these corporations into long-term tenants.• Special leases for cellphone micro-towers. DOT has begun talks with Verizon Wireless to cash in on the next generation of our national cellphone infrastructure. What Verizon calls “small cells” are 3.5-foot antennas mounted on utility poles, to beef up bandwidth in busy areas.
The South Carolina DOT is in business with Verizon already. Under the terms of a new statewide master lease, South Carolina has identified the highway shoulder spots where Verizon will install its first 149 small cells. The Palmetto State will collect $1,200 rent each year for each antenna.
“They’re looking at deploying thousands of these devices across (South Carolina) over the next five to seven years,” Mike Holder, DOT’s chief engineer, told board members at their last meeting.
This is nothing but talk, for now. These money-making ideas will have to survive the scrutiny of the developers, real estate executives and other businesspeople on DOT’s board. They could face a particularly tough audience in our business-friendly legislature – where utilities, developers and other affected parties have powerful allies.
But when Gov. Pat McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata deliver their promised proposals this winter for shoring up the state’s flagging transportation funds, they can expect resistance to whatever new taxes, new tolls and new fees they mention.
McCrory has said he might call for cutting our gas tax, which is higher than in neighboring states. He hasn’t said whether he’ll consider an increase in another significant revenue source, the highway use tax on car sales and leases, which is lower than in neighboring states. The new proposed fees are small by comparison to revenue from gas and highway use taxes.
Paul Hickman of Raleigh, president of the politically potent N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, doesn’t like paying DOT billboard fees at the same time he competes with those DOT logo signs.
“I think there’s a question here about how much we’re going to let the government sector compete with the private sector,” Hickman said. “And they (also) regulate you.”