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FOR SALE: Naming rights to new Narrows bridge?

Toll could soon be driving over a privately sponsored bridge.  - Greg Skinner
Toll could soon be driving over a privately sponsored bridge.
— image credit: Greg Skinner

Imagine this: The Pizza Hut Toll Bridge.

Or this: The Tacoma Narrows Subway Foot-long Bridge.

But picture this, too: lower tolls over — what is at least for now known as — the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

State Representative Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, has long wracked her brain for ways to bring down the escalating tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. And with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee recommending an across the board toll increase to the Washington State Transportation Commission on March 8, Angel said her search has become even more dire.

“I tried to refinance the bonds, they said no,” she said. “So I went back and tried to think about what else we could do to keep the cost of tolls down.”

Angel, who has served as a legislator in the 26th district since 2000, has come to unusual path. Inspired by area baseball and football stadiums, she has decided to investigate selling the naming rights of 5,400-foot-long bridge to a private company.

Her hope, she said, would be to get enough money from a company sponsorship to put a lump sum of money toward payment of the bonds in effort to lower the tolls.

“At first I was unsure so I dug in to the RCW,” Angel said, noting the legality of renaming a state route might be tricky. “It appears you can do it for a bridge. It’s something we need to discuss more.”

Currently, tolls cost about $43 million a year for drivers. Tolls will be in place until 2030.

Angel’s idea has precedent. Kind of. A Wall Street Journal Article published in 2010 sited Chicago’s British Petroleum Bridge and AT&T Plaza as two public facilities which naming rights were sold in order to bridge a budget gap. The “North Face” logo is posted on trail signs in Virginia and Maryland. Brooklyn subway stops are branded.

Even Kitsap County’s own pavilion, part of the county fairgrounds complex, was sold to the Kitsap Sun as a way to bring money in to the county, Angel said. Working as Kitsap County Commissioner when the pavilion was named, Angel said the naming rights bring in about $10,000 a year.

“We pursued it,” she said. “Now that money helps to maintain and operate that building.”

But parks and local pavilions are one thing. Public roadways are another, said Stephanie Cheng of Premier Partnerships, a consulting firm based in California that brokers the sale of naming rights.

“We frequently run in to issues regarding federal highway governance,” Cheng said. “Often, they have regulations on commercializing on that space.”

Cheng said while it is theoretically possible to sell the naming rights of a bridge, many obstacles stand in the way.

“We have consulted government agencies on considering issues like this before,” she said. “There is a lot of concern that if somebody buys the naming rights, it makes that company a preferred company in the city. Like the city is aligning their assets to a particular brand.”

Cheng said it is hard to know how much the branding rights would fetch without a lot of research.

Safeco Field in Seattle was named for $40 million over a 20-year period, the Seattle Times reported. Qwest Field (now CenturyLink) was originally named on a 15-year deal worth $75 million. Recently, a publicly owned animal care center in San Antonio received a $500,000 donation from Petco to name the facility.

Chris McGann, a spokesman for the Washington State Treasurer, said a lump sum of money — such as  something coming from the naming rights — could be applied to the bonds and bring the cost on toll payers down.

But just how much money would be applied, Cheng didn’t know.

“Without doing a detailed analysis, there is nothing you could compare it to,” Cheng said. “It depends on the traffic. It’s really hard to say.”

Angel is not the only one investigating selling the naming rights, or the sponsorship, of tolling roadways. According to www.traverlsmarketing.com, Colorado, Florida, Indiana and other states have generated non-toll revenue through the sponsorship of tolling roads. Travelers Marketing, which specializes in partnering private and public organizations, said on their website that as much as $50 million has been brought in through state roadway and private partnerships.

But would people want the bridge named even if it brought the cost of tolls down? Amy Igloi, a member of the CAC, said as long as it brought costs down, it seemed perfectly reasonable avenue to investigate.

“It’s logical,” she said. “There is Safeco Field and Cheney Stadium. I personally don’t have a problem with it.”

Some people might be put off by driving across something like the Coca-Cola bridge, Igloi said. But when times are tough, selling the naming rights might provide a perfect solution to toll rate increases.

“It’s a free market system,” she said. “If it’s legal and someone is willing to pay for it, I think it’s great.”

Igloi did say that a private corporation didn’t have “quite the same ring” as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Angel understands that naming of the bridge could be a conscience issue. But like Igloi, she agreed that if it brought the cost down, it should be looked in to thoroughly

“We got to figure something out. If thinking out of the box keeps the tolls down low, or pays the bridge off early, it’s worth looking in to,” she said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly named state rep. Jan Angel as a Democrat.

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