State gets one bid to pick up toll tab

Plan seeks to ease traffic on Bay Bridge in summer

April 23, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Dunkin' Donuts didn't bite. Neither did Clear Channel radio, nor Allfirst Bank.

Not one of the 20 companies that expressed interest in picking up Bay Bridge tolls for motorists this summer submitted bids to do so by yesterday's deadline.

What had seemed like a bright idea -- speed up beach-bound traffic by offering free bridge crossings during off-peak hours -- hit hard against the flat economy. Companies apparently figured that the state's asking price of at least $50,000 per night wasn't worth the good will they might have earned from drivers.

"This was really a risky endeavor," said Jon Hyman, a partner with the Breakthrough Group ad firm in Towson. "The state thought this was a premium thing and wanted a premium price. But this was an unknown in terms of how well it can work and what kind of response you can get."

In the end, only a state agency -- the Maryland Lottery -- found the cost worthwhile. It agreed to pay $59,119 to cover the tolls for a 12-hour period beginning at 7 p.m. June 6. Otherwise, vacationers heading to the Eastern Shore will have to pony up the $2.50 themselves.

State officials offered several reasons for the lackluster response: The promotion was announced three weeks ago; the companies would have had to pay the fee up front; and the state bid application was long and complex.

"We recognize that in trying to do this in time for June, we didn't have a lot of time to lure sponsors," said state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, also noting that ad budgets are not exactly fat these days. "The promising thing for motorists is that we remain focused on our goal of thinking outside the box and finding ways of relieving congestion."

Transportation officials will survey the 20 companies to find out why they didn't bid. The state will probably seek bids to cover tolls later in the summer. Those bid requests could go out as early as Friday.

One interested party, Allfirst Bank, said it finds the idea attractive, but the timing wasn't right. The three weekends the state offered were all in June, and Allfirst will be changing its name to M&T Bank on July 4 as part of a merger.

"We intend to make that [new name] as visible as possible," said bank spokesman Philip Hosmer. But not until July 4. He added, "We would consider bidding in the future if more dates become available."

The state had set minimum bids of $52,500 for June 13-14, $58,250 for June 20-21 and $61,300 for June 27-28 based on estimated traffic. The free tolls would have run from 7 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday.

"It seems overpriced to me, especially now, when there's not a lot of loose money floating around," said John McLaughlin, a retired advertising executive who teaches at the University of Baltimore. The asking price was particularly high, he noted, given that a typical highway billboard in the Baltimore area costs between $3,000 and $9,000 per month.

In exchange for paying the bridge tolls, companies would have been able to place signs on the toll booths, a banner above the toll plaza facade and an ad on the Bay Bridge Web site. Also, for the day preceding the free toll event and the day after, brochures would have been handed out to motorists informing them of the sponsor.

Last year, about 12 million vehicles crossed the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge, paying a total of $30.3 million in tolls. (There is no westbound toll.) During the summertime, about 23 percent of vehicles crossing the bridge are headed for Ocean City, 48 percent to elsewhere on the Shore and 20 percent to Delaware beaches.

The lottery thought sponsoring tolls for $59,000 was worth the money, given the popularity of Keno, Pick 3 and scratch-offs at beach resorts, said lottery spokesman Jimmy White. "If we can benefit and the folks trying to get across the bridge during those heavy travel times can benefit, then we thought it was a win-win for everyone," he said.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he was disappointed that motorists won't be given a faster -- and cheaper -- way to get to the Eastern Shore this summer. But he hoped the state would continue to look for ways to make the trip to the beach easier.

"We see backups for miles, especially at prime time," he said. "One has to worry that if something isn't done to make that trip easier on travelers, at some point they'll say, `Ocean City isn't worth the hassle.' "

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