No-toll drive across bay to be tried 3 weekends

Advertisers would pay for 12-hour periods

April 02, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Thousands of beach-bound travelers could get a free ride across the Bay Bridge this summer from corporate sponsors willing to pick up the tab in return for advertising on tollbooth signs, high-volume state Web sites and toll-plaza banners at the bridge.

The idea, Maryland Transportation Authority officials say, is to ease congestion at the eastbound ticket gates where 4- to 12-mile rolling backups are common on prime summer weekends.

If successful, the off-peak toll sponsorships, which apparently haven't been tried on a large-scale anywhere in the country, could be extended beyond the trial now set for three weekends in June. Eventually, the arrangement could become a permanent source of revenue, officials say.

"The authority has been looking for innovative ways to address that slowing at the plaza," said Lori A. Vidil, spokeswoman for the quasi-public agency that operates Maryland's toll bridges and tunnels.

Launched yesterday with a flurry of press releases and advertised bid requests, the program is designed to encourage vacationers and other motorists to cross the bridge from 7 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday on June 13, 20 and 27. Corporate sponsors could buy individual weekends which would range from $52,500 for the first one up to $61,000 for the third, or all three for $172,000, Vidil said.

MTA officials estimate that up to 18,000 vehicles crossed the bridge during those periods last year, and that about 1 million people would see the ads, which would be changed each week.

Transportation officials settled on the plan after a state highway task force considered charging variable rates for motorists, less for those traveling at off-peak hours, more for traditional peak hours.

"Apparently, the Massachusetts Turnpike has done limited toll sponsorships, but to our knowledge, no one has tried anything of this magnitude," Vidil said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said the traveling public cannot lose on the deal.

"It doesn't seem to have any real downside," Anderson said. "Business will get some favorable notice, motorists will get a two-fold break on tolls and fewer back-ups, and there's good will all around. It's an innovative move."

The concept is intriguing for advertisers, too, said Dennis Weller, regional general manager for Clear Channel Outdoors, which owns billboards throughout the Eastern Shore and handles advertising on public buses in Ocean City.

"I've never heard of anything like it, but what better way to capture an audience, especially if you're looking to attract people down for vacation," Weller said. "If it works, I think it could be something that will take off everywhere. It's like the partnership we have with the town of Ocean City."

Maryland's Atlantic resort has for years crafted public-private advertising opportunities such as the one in which Clear Channel manages advertising on city buses, a contract that puts about $120,000 a year into Ocean City coffers.

Ocean City also has a five-year contract with Pepsi, the beach town's official soft drink, which generates $70,000. In another deal, lifeguards receive free sunblock and glasses in exchange for advertising on beach stands, city officials said.

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