Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell wants to sell the rights to name the state's highways, bridges and other infrastructure to private companies or anyone else who can pay to raise money for road maintenance.
"No one else has done this before, so we're sort of treading on new ground," said state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.
Connaughton, who already has a plaza in Prince William County named after him, said he has no idea how much the highway branding will raise. But there is demand, he said. The state found an overwhelming demand from companies interested in "sponsoring" highway rest stops in the state, which allowed companies to advertise at the stops.
"There is a lot of interest in that, so the natural next step is to look at other infrastructure to see if there's interest in naming rights there as well," Connaughton said.
How exactly the program would work is still unclear, including what kinds of restrictions could be placed on liquor or tobacco companies putting their names on highways, he said.
The plan is part of several new initiatives tacked on to McDonnell's 2012 transportation plan, first outlined in December. The plan, vigorously opposed by Virginia Democrats, who proclaimed it "dead on arrival," would increase the share of state sales tax dedicated to transportation by 0.25 percent.
Democrats have argued for increasing the gas tax or finding some other stable source of transportation funding. The unreliable sale of highway naming rights won't be enough to solve the state's problems, they say.
"I think it would behoove the governor to come up with a long-term source of sustainable revenue rather than a patchwork approach that nibbles around the edges," said Anthony Kusich, spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus. "None of these are going to solve the long-term problem, especially in the Northern Virginia area. I can't imagine the average Virginian wants to drive over a road or a bridge named after a fast-food restaurant or a soda flavor."
Del. Tom Rust, R-Herndon, who is shepherding McDonnell's transportation plan through the General Assembly, said it's important to remember the "highway branding" is part of a larger plan to generate road maintenance funding.
"At the end of the day, it raises money for transportation improvements, which I support and think we need," he said.
In his transportation plan, McDonnell is also pushing for changes at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
House Democrats last week killed emergency legislation that would have allowed Virginia's two new authority members to take their seats immediately. Connaughton said the authority's refusal to seat the two members and the Democrats' refusal to force the issue could lead to problems for the $6 billion Dulles Rail project the airports authority is overseeing.
"You're just going to add one more opportunity for lawsuits," he said.