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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell Plans To Commercialize The Commute, Sell Roads' Naming Rights

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If Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has his way, you could soon take Wawa Road over the Walgreens Bridge past the Waffle House Interchange to get to Washington. The governor has announced a plan to cover part of an estimated $70 billion long-term shortfall in the state's transportation funding by selling off naming rights for state infrastructure to private entities.

Virginia's legislature has yet to debate the governor's just-announced transportation legislation, and many details are yet to be released. But McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell told HuffPost the bill was "another step in the direction of trying to come up with innovative funding methods that can help offset the costs" of the state's transportation needs.

Highways, bridges, interchanges and other transportation facilities would all be eligible for sponsorships. The money raised would be deposited in the state's Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund.

Caldwell said the governor's office had no estimate as to how much money could be raised. "I think folks will recognize that this is an opportunity to get some more money into our system, and it will be preferable to raising taxes on individuals, or raising the gas tax," he said.

But some critics are charging that the deal won't turn out as sweet as advertised. Elizabeth Ben Ishai, who charts the expanding influence of corporations in the public sphere as part of her work with the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, said the governor was setting up a false choice between raising taxes and selling naming rights.

The governor was assuming that advertising is free, she said. "In fact, the public pays a high price when our government essentially privatizes public space and provides yet another outlet for advertisers to bombard us with their messages."

In times past, Virginia named its roads after its heroes, which means the state has both a Booker T. Washington Highway and a Jefferson Davis Highway. Selling off naming rights, Ben Ishai argued, "undermines the value of public space and reinforces the idea that all aspects of the state are, ultimately, for sale."

More transportation agencies have been looking toward selling off naming rights since the economic downturn began. Philadelphia's transportation authority inked a $3.4 million, five-year deal to rename one of its subway stops "AT&T Station" in 2010. Boston's subway system is looking to do something similar to fix a $150 million deficit.

As Benjamin Kabak of the Second Avenues Saga blog noted, however, the prospect of raising big bucks off of naming deals has sometimes turned out to be a "mirage." Boston tried to sell off the names to four stops for $22 million in 2001, but found no takers. Without federal cooperation, moreover, most of Virginia's big interstates would be off-limit for sponsorships.

Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said the naming plan might help "at the margins, but it doesn't come close to providing the new long term revenue that Virginia needs -- and I'm sure the governor would agree with that."

Indeed, the Washington Post dismissed the naming-rights plan as just one in a series of "gimmicks."

To fill the long-term gap in Virginia's transportation budget -- estimated by one 2005 study's 20-year projection to be roughly $74.2 billion -- McDonnell has proposed diverting more sales tax revenues away from the state's overall budget. But that would make it more difficult to pay for other programs, which would, as a result, see $300 million less in funding by 2020.

A more reliable long-term solution, Chase argued, would be to index the state's gas tax to inflation. Many politicians in the state -- where both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office are Republican-controlled -- are fearful of a voter backlash. But the last time Virginia raised its state tax, he said, "nobody blew up gas stations or stormed the state capitol when that 17.5 cent gas tax went into effect."

Chase also doubted that corporations would be eager to affix their names to the state's perpetually clogged roads from northern Virginia into Washington, D.C. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the region's drivers, who spend an average of 74 hours a year stuck in gridlock, have the country's worst commute.

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