Few things herald the coming of summer like the Friday afternoon traffic backups of beachgoers crawling across Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Bridge. But motorists willing to make their weekend trips outside peak travel times could get a free -- and faster -- ride, courtesy of paid advertisers.
The Maryland Transportation Authority, which collects the bridge's $2.50 toll, is soliciting businesses willing to pay the tolls for vehicles crossing between 7 p.m. Fridays and 7 a.m. Saturdays in June.
The authority hopes the free crossings during that less popular travel time will ease the crunches on Friday afternoons and Saturdays. In turn, a business willing to pay the tolls will get a captive advertising audience of thousands of beachgoers, outlet shoppers and commuters. The company could advertise on toll plazas, tollbooths and state traffic Web sites and on signs that would say, "Your toll is being paid by . . . " during the 12-hour period, said Lori Vidil, the authority's spokeswoman.
"We want to get the message out to people that you don't have to sit in traffic on a Friday afternoon," Vidil said. "We want to generate awareness of that by having someone else pay the motorists' toll."
Vidil said this is the first time Maryland has turned to business sponsorships to help ease the bridge backups, which can be 12 miles long on a busy summer weekend. Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan wanted to try the idea, modeled on an example from the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The authority plans to test the idea in June. Depending on the amount of business interest, Vidil said, it may be extended to other summer weekends.
The minimum bids required to cover the tolls range from $52,500 to $61,300, depending on the weekend. Want the last three weekends in June? That'll be a minimum of $172,000. The state will open bids April 22.
There are some rules, Vidil said. No alcohol or tobacco ads. Nothing with a "sexual connotation or meaning." Nothing that depicts violence, a crime, obscenities or anything offensive to a particular race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
Advertisers can count on about 1 million travelers during the week, Vidil said, with about half coming from the Washington area and half from Baltimore.
Rick Huyett, vice president of The Ad Agency, a Georgetown advertising and marketing firm, said the toll advertising would be most suited to a company -- such as Coca-Cola or AT&T -- trying to boost brand identity in a mass market.
Traffic tie-ups would be an added benefit, he said, because the advertiser "would get more face time." Telling consumers that your product has just paid their toll would be the kind of feel-good message that advertisers seek, he said.
"It would be a positive brand identity," Huyett said. " . . . Everyone likes to get something for nothing."
Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he likes the idea. "Anything that will help move high volumes of traffic to the beach . . . is good news for motorists," he said.
Businesses interested in bidding can call 410-288-8415 or visit www.emarylandmarketplace.com.