DOTD considering ads as new revenue stream

Motorists soon may see an explosion of advertisements plastered on state roads, bridges and rest areas in Louisiana’s latest bid to raise cash during lean times.

“Funding for transportation has stagnated over the last several years,” said Rhett Desselle, assistant secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

“State agencies are just getting outside the box, thinking about how to raise money and pay for services,” Desselle said.

DOTD officials are seeking pitches from consultants who would oversee a campaign to open sponsorships to ferries, ferry terminals, toll plazas, rest areas, highway signs, traffic camera feeds, unique roads and bridges, scenic areas, buildings and even vests worn by state transportation workers.

The state already faces a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

However, any money raised through advertisements would be used to defray agency operation expenses, not trim the state’s staggering backlog.

“If we find someone to sponsor a rest area, we would use the money to offset our operation costs of that rest area,” Desselle said.

He said part of the reason for the initial steps called a request for information is to hear from marketing consultants on how much money the effort might raise.

DOTD’s yearly operating expenses total about $350 million.

The novel plan is not the first time state officials have taken unusual steps to raise money after years of budget problems.

The state has sold property, launched a tax amnesty program and employed a wide range of nontraditional ideas to help balance the state’s $25 billion operating budget.

DOTD recently tried to auction off a ferry for $200,000.

The agency is already collecting $250,000 per year for three years from State Farm in exchange for the insurance company attaching its name and logo to Motorist Assistant Patrol trucks, which help with traffic flow by aiding stalled motorists.

State Farm logos are also on patrol operator uniforms.

What other firms might be interested is unclear.

Buster Kantrow, vice president of business development for Lamar Advertising, said his firm has received information from the state about the program but officials are unsure whether to pursue it.

“It is an interesting idea,” Kantrow said.

Jeff Zehnder, CEO of Zehnder Communications, called the state’s plan “a little unusual” but one with possibilities.

Zehnder said he would make a distinction between putting ads on bridges and other monuments, which he said is not appealing, versus rest areas where sponsors could be linked to their clientele, which in that case is travelers.

“To me that is viable,” he said.

A few years ago city officials in Chicago tried to market advertising space along the Chicago River, said Kasey Windels, assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communications.

“But they found it very difficult to find sponsors who had the money and the interest,” Windels said.

The state has safeguards to prevent controversial firms from adding their name to state property, which sparked controversy in Missouri when the Ku Klux Klan entered that state’s Adopt-A-Highway litter cleanup program.

Louisiana has a committee named by DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas to review the content of any advertisements.

Might an ad or sponsor wind up on the new Mississippi River Bridge? Desselle said, once the state enters into a contract, officials will explore all opportunities for potential revenue. “It is open to anybody that can provide us the most value ...,” he said.

DOTD announced its plans Jan. 14. Oral presentations by ad consultants are scheduled March 10-14.

Applicants are supposed to spell out what kind of sponsors might be interested, which state property would generate the most interest and money, and whether other state property should be added to the list.

All the information will help state officials prepare a request for proposals and pave the way for selection of a consultant to run the program.

State Senate Transporation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, said his initial reaction is positive.

Any kind of tax hike for transportation is unlikely, Adley said, and it makes sense for state officials to find innovative ways to raise money.

A 2013 state law gave DOTD the authority to regulate the sponsorship of state properties.

“The intent of the bill was to think outside the box in ways to generate much-needed revenue on state assets,” said state Rep. Chris Leopold, R-Port Sulphur and co-sponsor of the law.

Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey enacted laws last year regulating sponsorships on roads, rest areas and other property, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.