Want to get to the Empire State Building on the subway? Why don't you ride the Verizon Local to Enron Place, switch to the Citigroup Shuttle and hop over to Halliburton Junction?
The city that will sell anything that isn't nailed down -- and much that is -- has fixed an eye on its subway stations. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has an $800 million budget hole, and officials this week said they might sell naming rights to their choicest stations.
They see it as new-wave corporate thinking.
"We are always looking for ways to increase revenues outside the fare box," said Brian Dolan, a spokesman for the MTA. The agency is looking "to evaluate assets that are likely to lend themselves to corporate sponsorship."
The MTA pulls down $78 million from advertising, on station billboards and ads inside subways and buses and commuter trains. MTA officials say the advertising idea could reap hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in the next year or two. And they warn the alternative could be deep service cuts and fare hikes.
But many New Yorkers weren't so enamored by the thought of turning the Columbus Circle Station into Time Warner Place. New York's largest stations and landmarks tend to carry names that speak to the nation's heritage. So there is the Brooklyn Bridge, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, and the Battery Park terminus on the IRT, the city's oldest subway line.
One IRT line is known as the New Lots line, named after the stop where so many turn-of-the-century immigrants came to find a new life.
Patrice Sosa, a 28-year-old security guard and native New Yorker, grew up riding the A-train. She pulled the earbuds from her Walkman and shook her head in dismay. "I don't think it's appropriate," she said. The stations and train lines "represent what I'm about, where I was born and where I go every day. It's a big part of me."
Then there's a practical question. Are New York's subway stations, those sweltering, often filthy, always rat-infested cement encasements, going to prove terribly attractive to multinational corporations intent on branding and selling lines of lingerie or SUVs? For most New Yorkers, a subway station is something to exit and enter as quickly as possible, sometimes with your breath sucked in.
"The stations have been set up to repel, not attract, people," said Tony Hiss, an urban critic and author of "The Experience of Place." "The only reason you're standing there is because the train's not coming."
New Yorkers would likely ignore attempts to re-brand a station with a corporate logo. "New Yorkers are very good at ignoring something that they consider dumb," Hiss said.
Perhaps, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in grim shape. The nation's largest transit agency, with an $8.4 billion budget and responsibility for thousands of miles of suburban track and urban rails and bus lines, faces spiraling costs. Its debt service is set to double within the next two years, to $1.7 billion.
The Transportation Authority increased the cost of subway and bus fares by 33 percent last year. Such increases amount to regressive tax hikes, as they fall heaviest on the poorest New Yorkers, critics say. For this reason, even some subway riders and transit advocates who are sharply critical of MTA spending practices have not dismissed the proposal to rename stations.
New Yorkers take more than 7 million subway rides each day.
"The MTA is in such dire shape, they are billions of dollars short in their capital plan," said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, the city's best-regarded transit watchdog. "They've borrowed a ton of money in recent years, and there's tremendous pressure on the fare."
MTA officials stressed Tuesday that the names of some city landmarks -- the Brooklyn and Triborough bridges and Grand Central station -- would be sacrosanct. And any cash from the sale of naming rights, they said, would go toward general expenses, rather than to the upkeep of particular stations.
In the 1980s, the Ben & Jerry's ice cream magnates Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield offered to take over a station on the West Side of Manhattan and make it a gleaming temple to hippie capitalism. But they ran afoul of the labor rules and wound up running full-page newspaper ads denouncing the unions before retreating to Vermont.
"It's not as easy as it looks to fix a city subway station," Russianoff noted.
Some detect in the proposal a trend toward unfettered commercialism in the nation's largest city. Jazz festivals are named for cigarette companies, basketball backboards carry corporate logos, and the mayor has proposed auctioning off the names of certain parks.
New York City's blood may run mercantile green, but enough is enough, say advocates.
"It's all ad-creep, the conversion of our public spaces for corporate self promotion," said Gary Ruskin, a native New Yorker and director of Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based group that wages a nationwide campaign against advertising in public spaces. "It's the wrong way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of subways, to celebrate that history by erasing it."
Still, even the best intentioned have tried their hand at selling naming rights. A few years back, the Straphangers Campaign started a contest to name individual subway cars after famous American people or places. The idea was to place a plaque on each sponsored subway car. The effort never quite got off the ground, but there were some brilliant entries.
Russianoff still recalls his favorite: "A Subway Named Perspire."