Could Metro’s Crystal City stop someday be known as Amazon Station? And with all the companies that want to buy Congress, won’t one of them want to put its name on Capitol South?
Two years after Metro’s board considered — but then set aside — the idea of letting companies buy the right to put their names on its rail stations, it’s revisiting the possibility. It has asked companies to submit bids by Jan. 23 to show how much Metro could make by renting out station names.
If Metro’s board decides to allow corporate sponsorship of stations, the winning consultant, under what could potentially be a 10-year contract, would then try to find companies willing to pay to put their names on stations.
The request for proposals, which appeared with no fanfare on Metro’s website on Christmas Eve, doesn’t spell out how much the contractor would be paid, but it does talk about the company getting a cut of the money it brings in to Metro.
It’s unclear, though, if the board is actually ready to let companies put their names on stations.
The idea came up a couple of years ago when Metro, then facing a $125 million revenue shortfall and a $290 million budget gap the following year, looked at naming rights as one way to wring more revenue from the system.
Other cities, including New York and Philadelphia, have made millions that way, Lynn Bowersox, Metro’s director of customer service, communications and marketing, wrote in a memo to the board at the time.
However, some, including Metro board chairman Jack Evans, worried the agency might find itself unable to turn away controversial companies without violating the First Amendment.
Evans last week referred questions about the RFP to Metro. But he told WTOP in 2017 that "the name change sounds really good until this happens: What if the Trump Organization offers us $10 million to rename Federal Triangle ‘The Trump Metro Stop at the Trump Hotel’?”
The board never acted on the idea, and Metro staff hadn’t raised it again publicly until the RFP was posted last month.
“It went into the black hole and now it’s coming out of the black hole,” Tom Bulger, one of Washington’s two members on Metro’s board, said in an interview.
Metro’s funding situation has stabilized somewhat since the idea was last brought up. Virginia, Mayland and the District of Columbia agreed last year to provide the agency with $500 million a year in dedicated funding. But Bulger, who pushed the idea in 2017, said Metro could still use the millions a year that selling station naming rights could bring, particularly considering the “astonishing” $3 billion shortfall in the funds Metro is setting aside for the health care and pension costs for current and future retirees.
In cities where station names have been sold, agencies have made millions, though not many stations have actually changed names.
In 2009, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority entered a deal with the developer of the Barclays Center arena in downtown Brooklyn. The developer is paying the MTA a total of $4 million over 20 years in return for renaming the Atlantic Avenue Station as Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center Station.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia earned a total of $9 million when it agreed to change the name of Pattison Station to AT&T Station and Market East Station to Jefferson Station, both for five-year terms.
After the AT&T deal expired, SEPTA in July sold the rights to NRG Energy Inc. to put its name on the station for $5.25 million over five years, according to Philly.com. The station is home to the city’s baseball, hockey and football teams, which play in facilities with their own corporate names — Citizens Bank Park, the Wachovia Center and Lincoln Financial Field.
Scott Goldsmith, president of Intersection, an advertising and tech company that handles station naming and corporate sponsorships for SEPTA, said companies should have “significant interest” in Metro’s stations because of the high number of riders and D.C.'s many iconic areas. Still, he said, his company hasn’t yet decided if it will bid on the contract.
The deals mainly bring additional revenue to transit agencies, said Goldsmith, whose company handles advertising for a number of major transit agencies, including New Jersey Transit and Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But they can also bring improvements for riders, such as a deal in which Verizon is providing wifi and interactive touch-screen trip planning at suburban stations in the SEPTA system.
According to the Los Angeles Times, however, MTA’s board of directors in February reversed its two-month-old decision to allow corporate naming of LA’s subway stations, bus stops and other transit properties.
The board worried that refusing a sponsorship deal because of a company’s business practices or political affiliation could expose the agency to lawsuits. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, according to the paper, worried about having to sell naming rights to a company like Wells Fargo, which last month reached a $575 million settlement with all 50 states and the District of Columbia to resolve allegations it had engaged in a variety of abuses of customers.
"As it turns out, we can’t really pick and choose,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
Bulger, however, believes Metro could find a way to get around the concern. SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch also said the station naming deals thus far have involved SEPTA reaching out to specific companies, so it hasn’t faced a situation in which a company with which the agency doesn’t want to be associated wants to put its name on a station.
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