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Updated Monday, January 28, 2013 at 05:01 PM

A bridge named for Mom? It could happen

By Mike Lindblom
Seattle Times transportation reporter

Washington drivers might someday travel in the Bing Renton S Curves, cross the Starbucks Narrows Bridge, or catnap in the Pemco Rest Area.

House Bill 1051, filed last week, would authorize the sale of naming rights for highways, rest areas, bridges and viewpoints, to help pay for the state’s underfunded highway maintenance. The sponsors are Reps. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Linda Kochmar, R-Federal Way.

Angel said the idea came to her while crossing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, where rates increased last year to $4 round trip for pass holders, or $5 cash. Then she thought about her Kitsap Peninsula neighbors who can afford to pump only two or three gallons of fuel at a time, and who have run out of gas on the roadside.

“I was trying to think, ‘How do we keep the tolls down for my constituents who have to use the bridge?’ ”

Angel cites the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, which brings in $10,000 a year and gets free advertising from the Kitsap Sun newspaper for naming rights to a year-round pavilion. The county was paid $156,000 more last year in naming and advertising rights during last summer’s fair. Also, hospitals raise large sums for named medical buildings, Angel said.

Any highway-naming program would be regulated by the state Transportation Commission, a governor-appointed board of seven members. It would decide operational questions such as how big the naming signs could be.

Money raised on a tollway would have to be spent there, and any other funds must go toward highways, roads and ferries.

Naming-rights proposals are being considered in Ohio and New Hampshire, news accounts say. Ads are commonplace in U.S. transit systems, including King County Metro, which made $5.5 million last year. In Seattle, the South Lake Union streetcar raises $300,000 a year through train wraps and station naming.

Last year, Virginia sold sponsorship rights for the state’s 43 rest areas to GEICO insurance, for $2 million annually — covering one-tenth the state’s cost to maintain the rest areas. Typically there is a blue sign before each rest stop, showing the trademark gecko and the company name. State officials also tout a safety angle, as the GEICO signs encourage drivers to use rest areas as a “safe phone zone” instead of driving distracted.

Virginia is working on guidelines to sell bridge sponsorships, said spokeswoman Tamara Rollison of the Virginia Department of Transportation. There has been virtually no public backlash to the rest-area program, she says.

Opinions might be more hostile in Washington state, which has a tradition of protecting its views.

The Scenic Vistas Act of 1971 forbids billboards if they can be seen by drivers “of normal visual acuity,” except for industrial and commercial zones. Last year a Seattle entrepreneur’s attempt to post floating billboards alongside the city’s two floating bridges was forbidden by city and state governments.

Washington state studied ferry sponsorships in 2009 and balked, though a consulting study claimed a potential $10 million could be raised a year.

The Transportation Commission sensed strong public opposition to more signs and commercialization of vessels, recalls commission President Dan O’Neal of Belfair, Mason County. “But conditions could change,” he says.

In November the commission rejected the name “Ivar Haglund” for one of two new ferries, partly because of its commercial overtones with Ivar’s restaurants, O’Neal said.

O’Neal takes a skeptical view of income projections, without testing the market first. He doubts Washington DOT could earn enough at the Narrows Bridge to avert toll increases, but the dollars depend on the details.

It’s difficult to envision naming rights relieving a large share of the 2007 Narrows Bridge construction-debt payments, currently around $45 million a year. The financing schedule calls for payments to increase, potentially requiring a $6 toll rate by 2015.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will soon debate statewide gas-tax increases and other transportation funding. The Connecting Washington task force suggests $11 billion be spent on new highways and $10 billion for maintenance over 10 years, destroying any delusion that sponsorships can spare the Legislature from making hard decisions to tax or cut.

Nonetheless, some lawmakers like Angel would favor trying any available tool.

“This could be a drop in the bucket, or this could be a huge amount to pay for our expenses,” she said.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, is undecided.

“She’s excited to know what people think about the idea,” said aide Caron Benedetti. Clibborn intends to give the naming-rights bill a hearing.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom


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