NEW YORK (AP) – You don’t have to be an urban planner to figure out that there aren’t enough public bathrooms in New York. Just check out the lines for the ladies room at Rockefeller Center or sniff the air wafting from any alley on a Saturday night.

Toiletlessness is a chronic problem in Manhattan, and many New Yorkers spend a lifetime assembling a mental map of those special hotels, coffee shops and bookstores about town that have clean restrooms open to the public. Some small amount of relief could be on the way.

City officials announced this week that they have chosen a Spanish advertising company to install as many as 20 public pay toilets in Manhattan, as part of a larger project to replace 330 newsstands and 3,300 bus shelters.

Under the agreement, announced Wednesday, Cemusa Inc. would install the toilets and other structures for free, and then hope to turn a profit by selling advertising.

Patrons would pay a nominal fee – no more than a dollar – to use the toilets, which would be in operation by 2007. The city would get a cut of the advertising revenue. Officials estimated its share of the deal would be worth $1 billion over 20 years.

The plan sounds rosy, on paper, but it should be noted that New York has been close to approving installation of more public toilets before. Efforts to introduce something akin to the self-cleaning “sanisettes” that dot Paris have come and gone since the early 1990s.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani requested proposals from vendors interested in operating pay toilets, but ultimately flushed the project.

New York’s transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, said the idea’s time has come.

“Every New Yorker is intrigued by public toilets,” she said. “People are always searching for toilets in the city. We have millions of tourists who come here all the time. Thank God, the city is doing great, and people are out and about. But it is a challenge to find a place to go to the bathroom.”

It may be a challenge to find spots for Cemusa’s freestanding toilets too.

While every New Yorker wants access to a bathroom while running errands or out on the town, fewer probably want one standing on the sidewalk outside their apartment building. Some business owners will likely feel the same way.

Weinshall said the city will be sensitive to those types of concerns, and would look to place the facilities in central locations, maybe at the fringes of parks or other public spots that attract large numbers of people.

A handful of pay toilets are already in place in various spots around the city.

Patrons can pay 50 cents to enter the one-person restroom at the northern end of Herald Square. Push a button, and the electronic door slides closed and locks. Customers have the bathroom for themselves for up to 15 minutes. After that, the door opens automatically. A large digital clock keeps track of the remaining time.

New York could do with more such spots, said 38-year-old city native Michelle Lee.

“Especially if they’re clean,” she said. “I’ll pay 50 cents for that. Some of the public bathrooms here are pretty terrible.”

In the meantime, out-of-towners on the hunt for a relatively sanitary place to do their business might follow the advice of New Yorker Susan Trombetta, lunching close to the Herald Square restroom on Thursday.

“There is a method,” she said. “I usually walk in to a restaurant, pretend that I have a table and walk straight to where I think the bathroom might be.”

Don’t ask for permission, if you can avoid it, she suggested. It reduces the chance that you’ll get turned down. And try the public spaces in nice hotels, if you can find one. They tend to be much nicer than cafes or department stores.

“You have to be aggressive. As long as you act confident, you’ll be OK,” she said.

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