State Farm enters partnership with highway agency

In return for $1.3 million for emergency vehicles, SHA will carry the insurance firm's logo

February 20, 2011|By Ashley Halsey III, The Washington Post

FedEx is a shipping company — except on football Sundays in Washington. Verizon is a communications company, unless professional hockey is being played at the home of the Capitals. Verizon competes with Comcast, unless you're talking about the home court of the University of Maryland Terrapins.

Now, State Farm Insurance wants to be identified as a good Samaritan by drivers whose cars go kaput on Maryland highways.

Just like FedEx, Verizon and Comcast, the insurance company has entered into a partnership — albeit somewhat less glamorous than the others — with the state of Maryland. It will pay $1.3 million to put more State Highway Administration yellow emergency response vehicles on the road. In return, the state's fleet of 52 yellow trucks will carry the State Farm logo and the company will advertise the helping-hand partnership.

"This was a way we could fund additional vehicles," said Neil J. Pedersen, the SHA administrator. "I think it's the continuation of a trend."

Corporate sponsorship had been around for generations before companies began paying to put their names on stadiums, arenas and college football games. "The Eveready Hour" hit radio waves in 1923, and "The Maxwell House Showboat" was the top radio show in the land a decade later. Today, NASCAR vehicles are plastered with corporate logos, as are the jerseys pro cyclists wear at the Tour de France, and the world's top soccer teams wear brand names rather than team names across their chest.

The notion of corporations funding efforts normally paid for with tax dollars isn't new, and it was championed during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Maryland's program of highway litter removal is sponsored by companies and individuals who get their names on roadside signs in return.

The State Farm program to fund roadside assistance is operating in several other states, and Pedersen said he researched it after seeing signs advertising the program while traveling in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

In a time of economic distress, he said, state employee unions recognize the need for creative partnerships.

"This is not that different from other situations where we bring in contractors to work alongside our state workers," he said. "State employees have become accustomed to the fact that this is the way we get things done in this tight economy."

Pedersen said the state is not pursuing other corporate sponsors, though he noted that some states are considering sponsorship deals for rest areas. California thought about using its overhead electronic message signs to raise corporate money, a concept he rejects.

The State Farm funding will expand the SHA's fleet of trucks, adding two new vehicles to bring the number to 52. It also will pay salaries for additional staff members so that the hours of coverage can be expanded on more than 500 miles of highways in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and Frederick and Annapolis areas.

In 2009, emergency patrols responded to 55,000 incidents and disabled vehicle calls, often being contacted through the #77 number that cell phone callers can use when stranded on the road.

"This will now enable it to become a 24-hour-a-day program," Pedersen said.

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