Over the years, New Jersey's three toll roads have turned to billboards, corporate sponsorships and other creative ways to generate more revenue without hitting motorists with another fare increase.

Now, the state Legislature is looking to wring more money out of the Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike by tapping their rest stops and service plazas for transportation funding.

A bill making its way through the Statehouse directs the toll roads to develop plans for more commercial, business or retail ventures at the rest areas. They have 12 months to submit their ideas to the governor and Legislature once the bill becomes final.

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Lawmakers see the rest stops as a potentially lucrative source of transportation funding - one that would allow them to raise cash without imposing a tax increase or jacking up tolls.

"It's incumbent upon us to seek creative ways to boost revenue without burdening taxpayers," Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, one of the primary sponsors of the bill, said in a statement. "Our current transportation infrastructure demands that we think outside the box to find new revenue sources to help meet our long-term needs."

The Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee approved the bill by an 11-0 vote last week. The legislation next goes to the full Assembly for consideration, although a vote has not yet been scheduled. A companion bill in the Senate died in the previous legislative session, an Assembly aide said. However, the bill could be resurrected in the Senate following approval by the Assembly.

"That's not really a problem. It could be passed by the Assembly and go to the Senate for a vote," said Tim O'Donovan, an aide to Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, another sponsor of the bill.

Wisniewski said the sluggish economy and revenue shortages are forcing lawmakers to consider other options for funding New Jersey's transportation network.

"Finding new revenue sources without raising taxes is crucial, particularly in an economy like this," he said.

New Jersey is not alone in exploring highway rest stops and service plazas as a potential funding source. Louisiana and Massachusetts are among states looking to overcome scarce transportation funding by monetizing rest stops through advertising deals, corporate sponsorships or service contracts. Louisiana is studying a sponsorship campaign for roads, bridges, ferries, buildings and even the vests worn by state transportation workers, according to media reports.

Concession deals - in which private companies operate the rest stops and give the toll roads a share of the revenue - have long been in existence on New Jersey highways. But now the Legislature wants the toll roads to do more.

Coughlin and Wisniewski said they proposed their bill in response to a 2010 report by the New Jersey Privatization Task Force, which indicated there are "numerous revenue-generating opportunities" for the toll roads to study.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates both the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, declined to comment on the rest stop bill. The South Jersey Transportation Authority, operator of the Atlantic City Expressway, also declined to comment on the specifics of the proposal.

"Traditionally, we don't comment on pending legislation. But certainly, we put every effort forward to maximize our assets and generate revenue," said Sharon Gordon, deputy executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority.

Toll revenue is, by far, the expressway's chief funding source, but the road also depends on billboards, corporate sponsorships and concession contracts to generate cash. In the 1990s, the expressway reversed its anti-billboard policy and began allowing the mega-signs on the road. Four years ago, the expressway took the additional step of allowing local corporations to "sponsor" the road through small highway signs that feature the names of those businesses.

"We continually seek ways to maximize our assets and generate non-toll revenue, such as billboards and roadway sponsor boards," Gordon said.

The 47-mile expressway has only one full-fledged rest stop, the Farley Service Plaza, located at the midpoint of the road. It also has a Sunoco gas station and mini-mart next to a visitors welcome center on the outskirts of Atlantic City.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority's 12 service plazas on the turnpike and nine on the parkway generate about $35 million in annual revenue for the agency, spokesman Tom Feeney said. Most of the turnpike and parkway rest stops are operated by contractor HMSHost Corp.

HMSHost will build a new $7 million service plaza as part of the reconstruction of the parkway's Interchange 41 in Galloway Township. Plans call for Interchange 41 to have a new southbound and northbound entrance at Jimmie Leeds Road. Interchange 41's new service plaza is scheduled for completion in 2015.

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