Dunkin' Donuts, Clear Channel Eye Chesapeake Bay Bridge Sponsorship

That "Welcome to Maryland's Eastern Shore" sign greeting eastbound drivers over the Bay Bridge may soon be covered with a pink and orange Dunkin' Donuts logo.

The coffee-and-pastry purveyor is one of at least three well-known brands interested in sponsoring free passage over the Chesapeake Bay this summer, as state transportation officials look for ways to prevent miles-long traffic jams from the toll plaza on busy Friday nights.

Allfirst Bank, a division of M&T Bank (MTB), and Clear Channel Communications (CCU), which owns 21 Maryland radio stations and an outdoor agency that rents billboards, have also expressed interest in the state's effort to relieve congestion during peak travel hours. 

The Maryland Transportation Authority is inviting corporations to sponsor toll-free passage over the Bay Bridge on three Friday nights in June. The idea is to get drivers off the bridge during afternoon rush hour and deter traffic backups.

According to authority officials, 11 other companies - including an unnamed media giant - have contacted the state about bids since the project's April 1 announcement.

Only Allfirst and Clear Channel appeared Wednesday in Baltimore to get more information at a pre-bid conference. And while present, spokesmen for both companies said a bid is not definite.

They have until April 22 to submit proposals. The Board of Public Works is scheduled to award the contracts on April 30. If successful, sponsorships would alleviate traffic without costing the state revenue.

"Our main focus is to let people know in a very public way that they have a choice not to sit in back-ups on Friday afternoons and Saturdays during the day," said Lori Vidil, a spokeswoman for the authority. 

The plan is that from 7 p.m. Friday through 7 a.m. Saturday on the second, third and fourth weekends of June, motorists would get a courtesy lift over the 4.3-mile bridge.

During the preceding week, toll takers would distribute sponsors' advertisements when taking cash. Sponsor perks also would include signs stretching across the toll plaza's overhang, and pitches on the state's Bay Bridge Web site.

On Kent Island, the bridge's eastern terminus, a regional welcome sign could be covered with an advertisement, if sponsors so choose. 

Maryland's plan is one of the first nationwide to use corporate sponsors at highway toll plazas. It's modeled after a similar Massachusetts Turnpike Authority program that has landed two sponsors since 2000.

"It sounds like an outside-the-box idea, that they're trying to think creatively," said William Burns, a spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "I haven't heard of anyone doing something similar to this."

The state's asking price is significantly more than what it costs for a billboard on the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore, or along Interstate 95 through the state.

According to Jon Hyman, a partner with the Breakthrough Group advertising firm in Towson, advertising space on the expressway runs about $8,500 per month. On I-95, billboard space can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $8,000 per month. So Maryland's asking price is quite high, he said, except for one thing - the literature drivers receive at the toll plaza.

"This is a different kind of animal," Hyman said. "A billboard is a passive medium. It's there and if you see it, great. Getting the piece of literature in your hand is an added value."

Officials said they want to address traffic backups without losing revenue, which is why they opposed legislation this session in the General Assembly that would have opened the bridge for free.

Bay Bridge toll takers collected $30.3 million in fiscal year 2001, according to the authority's most recent annual report. The one-way, eastbound toll costs $2.50 for a two-axle vehicle, with each additional axle costing $2.50. More than 11.9 million vehicles crossed the eastbound span in 2001.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.