For the Oregon Department of Transportation, February is the cruelest month. 

Legislators are wrestling with health-care and education reform while trying to keep the state budget in balance. Meanwhile, they're all but ignoring ODOT. The agency's signature issue—the proposed $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing—still lacks funding.

Now, though, ODOT officials might wish legislators were paying even less attention to their agency.

Lawmakers and a skilled lobbyist are preparing to strip millions from ODOT's troubled budget and send the money to a tiny agency most Oregonians don't even know exists—all in the name of safer, more pleasant rest areas for motorists.

Last week, the Senate Business and Transportation Committee voted unanimously to take control of 19 rest areas along highways and freeways away from ODOT and give them to a quasi-public agency called Oregon Travel Experience. 

Oregon Travel Experience is the agency that sells advertising space to hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses on those blue signs you see before exit ramps. Run by the Oregon Travel Information Council, it gets its $6 million-a-year budget from advertising, and increasingly from ODOT.

Oregon Travel Experience already is paid by the state to run five rest areas. Lawmakers made the switch in 2009 after hearing how badly ODOT was running the stops.

Among the worst were the Baldock rest areas on Interstate 5, just south of Wilsonville. As many as 100 homeless people lived there, says Oregon State Police Sgt. Fred Testa. Drug dealers and prostitutes operated openly, Testa says, and the "mayor" of Baldock created daily work schedules for panhandlers, who took turns shaking down motorists.

"It was a mess," he says.

Since Oregon Travel Experience took over, state data show, calls for police service have dropped more than 50 percent. And the restrooms get cleaned more often while staff members patrol the parking lots.

But the better service comes at a hefty cost—contrary to the typical claim that specialized contractors can provide the same service as public agencies for a lower price.

In 2009, ODOT spent $3.8 million to maintain 41 highway rest areas. But under Senate Bill 1591, now before legislators, the agency would be forced to pay Oregon Travel Experience $6.55 million annually to maintain just 28 rest areas. (ODOT would still maintain 13 rest areas, at a yearly cost of about $600,000.)

"It's more expensive because of the deferred maintenance and increased staffing," says Oregon Travel Experience CEO Cheryl Gribskov. 

ODOT director Matt Garrett isn't happy. "With the financial pie shrinking, is now the time to do this?" Garrett asked legislators while testifying against the bill last week.

Garrett's agency finds itself in a serious financial bind for two big reasons. First, federal stimulus money is drying up. And second, ODOT has spent itself deeply into debt.

The department must make payments on the $2.9 billion in bonds it has issued to finance road projects over the past decade. The money that covers those debt payments—registration fees and the state's 30-cent-per-gallon gas tax—aren't keeping pace.

That means ODOT has used up its buying power for new highway projects. There's no money for the Columbia River Crossing or smaller projects such as widening Highway 217 or building the Newberg-Dundee bypass. 

"ODOT's State Highway Fund resources," Garrett told lawmakers in November, "are now essentially fully committed to debt service, the costs of running the agency, and maintaining highways, leaving virtually no state funding for new capital projects."

ODOT can usually muscle its way in Salem. So how does Oregon Travel Experience—an obscure private-public agency—wrestle an annual $6.55 million check from the state's transportation colossus?

Turns out the tiny agency has a pretty skilled lobbying and communications team of its own. It pays veteran lobbyist Craig Campbell (son of former House Speaker Larry Campbell) $5,000 a month, and former Sen. Rick Metsger (D-Welches), who used to chair the Senate's transportation committee, gets nearly $4,000 a month for "coalition building."

But the real secret, Gribskov says, is knowing that the public likes clean, safe rest areas. ODOT made matters worse last September when it threatened to close the Mount Hood rest area at Government Camp.

That encouraged Sen. Chuck Thomsen (R-Hood River) to propose moving the Government Camp rest stop and a slew of others—along with the ODOT cash—to Oregon Travel Experience.

Thomsen also won over a powerful ally: Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), who testified strongly in favor of the bill last week. 

At the hearing, Thomsen joked that he knew the bill would appeal to Courtney, 68.

“I figured, of anybody in the Senate,” Thompson told Courtney,  “you would have the weakest bladder.” 

FACT: More than 3,500 vehicles per day stop at the Baldock rest area, 14 miles south of Portland. The area encompasses about 100 acres.