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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : latest news : state May 26, 2016


10/15/2013 2:41:00 PM
This toilet brought to you by ... ADOT allows sponsorships for state's interstate rest stops

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services


PHOENIX -- Your next pit stop while driving along the lonely stretches of Arizona highways could be sponsored by Google.

Or McDonald's.

Or perhaps even Capitol Media Services.

That's because a new deal by the Department of Transportation gives a Tennessee-based management firm an $18.3 million, 5-year contract to maintain state's 25 the rest stops. More to the point, it also allows Infrastructure Corporation of America to sell not only sponsorships for each rest area but also commercial advertising space inside each of them.

But the state, in its first-ever such partnership, has a bit of a selfish motive in all this.

The contract requires ICA to share all that sponsorship and advertising revenues with the state, with a minimum guarantee of $355,000 over five years -- and close to $1 million if ICA gets five more one-year extensions -- money that can be used to maintain roads.

None of this was ADOT's idea. In fact, the unsolicited proposal came in to the agency about a month after ICA contributed $10,000 to Jan Pac in February. That's the federal political action committee run by Gov. Jan Brewer which she uses to support congressional candidates of her choosing.

ICA also spent another $6,400 in what it called "transportation' to benefit Jan Pac as part of her Tennessee fundrasing in February.

But Brewer told Capitol Media Services that while she is a supporter of public-private partnerships she never discussed any sort of contract with ICA officials while she was there.

"I went to Tennessee on behalf of the (Republican) Party back there and (Congresswoman) Marsha Blackburn and spoke to a large group of people,' the governor said. And Brewer said that while she was back there she also took the opportunity to raise money for Jan Pac.

"I met a lot of different people,' Brewer said. "They were very welcoming and very supportive, and I received other money out of Tennessee.'

Gail Lewis, ADOT's director of P3 Initiatives -- that's short for Public-Private Partnerships -- said until now ADOT has had 14 separate contracts the 25 rest areas. While the $3.3 million annual total was about $100,000 less than the first year of this new pact, Lewis said the prior contracts did not cover everything that needed to be done, like filling soap dispensers between cleanups.

And the contract requires on-site staffing 16 hours a day.

But what really made the deal work, Lewis said, were changes in federal laws which now allow states to have sponsorships and advertising in the rest areas along roads which were built or maintained with federal dollars.

"We're not selling naming rights to the rest areas,' she said. "So the Sunset Point Rest Area will still be the Sunset Point Rest Area.'

Instead, the sponsor will be able to put a small sign with the company logo along the highway guiding travelers to where they can stretch their legs and relieve themselves. And the sponsor will also get some rights to advertising within the rest area.

But direct sales -- other than the vending machines whose proceeds benefit the blind -- will remain off limits.

"Starbucks may have the ability to do some advertising,' Lewis explained.

"But they won't be selling any coffee because that's not part of the deal,' she continued. "And we're prohibited under federal law from allowing that.'

Similarly, Lewis said, a pet store might sponsor a dog-walking area within a rest stop.

Advertising within the rest area is a bit different, according to Mike Shinn, ICA's director of client services.

Most significant, it cannot be seen from the roadway.

"But within the facility itself, you can do things to try to generate revenue,' Shinn said. So a company might be willing to set up a free wi-fi hotspot within the rest area in exchange for getting the credit. A hotel chain might even have an interactive computer terminal to make reservations. Or a bank might decide an ATM makes sense at the site.

And the state itself could set up terminals to sell lottery tickets.

He would not say how much a sponsorship might cost, or even provide information on the price tag for similar deals in other states where ICA has similar contracts. "It's whatever the advertiser thinks it's worth,' Shin said.

But there are limits on who -- and what -- can be promoted.

At the very least, ICA, which runs its own in-house advertising agency, is required to screen potential advertisers and sponsors to ensure they are in compliance with nondiscrimination laws. The contract specifically prohibits denigrating groups based on gender, religion, race, ethnic or political affiliations.

Potentially more significant, it says sponsorship cannot come from any group that has "historically advocated' such policies.

That language is designed to keep the KKK, which has tried to adopt stretches of highway elsewhere.

Also out of bounds are obscene or pornographic messages or even anything containing "an offensive level of sexual overtone, innuendo or double entendre.'

And on the more political end, candidates and ballot measures are off limits, as are advertising for contraceptives, abortion or counseling, or any "expressions of opinion' one way or the other about these services, as is the promotion of alcohol, tobacco or firearms.

Shinn, who spent 34 years with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said what his company does makes sense not only for ICA but for states.

"The department of transportation's main focus is taking care of the roadways,' he said. At the same time, the poor economy, coupled with the lack of new federal highways dollars and flat state gasoline tax receipts has left states with fewer dollars to do that maintenance.

One result, Shinn said, is some states have shuttered rest areas. That actually happened in Arizona in 2009 during the first part of the budget crisis, with ADOT blocking off access to a majority of the rest stops.

It took a year to get all of them reopened.

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