LANSING, Mich. — Michigan is interested in commercializing some rest areas along a major highway in the northern part of the state, one of its first significant forays into possibly partnering with the private sector on long-term design and maintenance of transportation infrastructure projects.
The state Department of Transportation put feelers out Thursday to companies looking to form public-private partnerships involving rest stops, freeway lighting, bridge construction and logging.
The two rest areas proposed for possible deals are near Higgins and Houghton lakes along U.S. 127 south of Grayling, a popular route for tourists. Ideas to improve the rest stops — one of which will be closed otherwise later this year — could include opening restaurants and selling advertising space and naming rights.
If successful, Michigan may look to make money from some of the 27 rest stops on U.S. 131 in west Michigan, U.S. 23 in the southeastern part of the state and other non-federal highways. Under federal law, Michigan can't commercialize 54 rest areas along federal interstates.
"We envision commercial entities offering the kinds of services you might see on the Indiana Toll Road or Ohio Turnpike," said Joe Pavona, special adviser for public-private partnerships to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
The state isn't planning to sell assets but instead strike long-term deals with investors and companies, he said. Such arrangements exchange planning, building and maintaining infrastructure for a steady stream of payments and can save taxpayers, he said, as well as provide government more budgeting flexibility.
"We're not talking about doing something if the value for money isn't there," Pavona said.
The state asked for letters of interest by mid-August from the private sector. If there's interest, the state would issue requests for proposals.
"This is an information-gathering stage, the first step to starting a conversation about what's possible in financing and building infrastructure," state Transportation director Kirk Steudle said.
The projects identified for potential private involvement could let the state preserve assets that otherwise might continue declining because of a lack of funding, said MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson. The two rest areas are in poor condition, not too far from other rest stops and not used as much, he said.
The state also is gauging companies' interest in controlling highway lighting, doing some bridge work and thinning out forests along four state and federal freeways.
Lighting privatization proposals could cover either all 18,400 lights on state highways — excluding rest stops and some other facilities — or freeway lighting in metropolitan Detroit. Tunnel lighting just along I-696 in Oakland County and under Detroit's Cobo Center is another option.
Cranson said new lighting would significantly cut energy costs, but that the state can't afford to make substantial upgrades on its own.
The state also wants to see if there's interest in securing long-term contracts to finance, design, construct and maintain bridges over Interstate 75 in Detroit and Oakland County and along I-94 in Detroit and Jackson and Berrien counties. The bridges would be expected to last 100 years — 25 years longer than normal — by having materials such as carbon fiber composite cables.
Other potential projects include logging highway forest areas: 128 miles of U.S. 2 in the Upper Peninsula; 134 miles of I-75 in the northern Lower Peninsula; 78 miles of U.S. 127 in Clare, Gratiot and Isabella counties; and 51 miles of U.S. 131 in Kent, Mecosta and Montcalm counties.
"We're really interested in driving private investment to the state," Pavona said. "We're serving notice to the market that we're serious about this."
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