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Virginia Senate bill demands Metro change station name to include bank or lose millions in funding

A pedestrian bridge at the McLean Metro station.
A pedestrian bridge at the McLean Metro station. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A Virginia Senate bill would withhold at least $166 million pledged to Metro unless the transit system adds the name of Capital One bank to the McLean rail station.

The legislation would rename the Silver Line station as “McLean-Capital One Hall,” a reference to a performance venue the bank is building a quarter-mile from the site. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said she inserted the provision in transportation funding legislation because the bank did not like being “squeezed for money.”

She said Metro was unfairly pressuring the bank to pay for the naming rights rather than granting them free.

The legislative tussle rose from Metro’s newfound interest in selling naming rights to private companies for its stations. For years, the transit system has resisted doing so, viewing stations as landmarks with names that should match their surrounding neighborhoods.

The coronavirus pandemic’s crushing economic effect has prompted Metro to reconsider that policy. Naming rights potentially could bring it millions at a time when the transit agency is facing declining revenue amid a historic drop in ridership.

As Metro was rethinking the policy, Tysons-based Capital One expressed interest in adding the name of its new theater to the McLean station. The bank offered to pay the costs associated with changing signage and got the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on board. The county then asked Metro, which ultimately makes naming decisions. The transit agency refused. Instead, it offered to sell the naming rights to the Fortune 100 company.

That did not sit well with Howell, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. She tucked the ultimatum into a massive state budget bill: Change the name free, or lose out on funds the state provides to local governments via the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) so the jurisdictions can make annual contributions to Metro’s budget.

For the next fiscal year, the state is estimated to provide between $166 million and $174 million to Metro by that route, according to the NVTC and Metro board members.

Howell, whose district includes Capital One Tower and the McLean station, accused Metro of seeking to extract money from the company after it built a venue to serve the public — a venue big enough that it deserves its name on the Metro station nearby, she said. “Capital One is putting in a community theater, and so letting the public know where to get off the Metro would be very helpful for that,” Howell said. “And the [Fairfax County] Board of Supervisors had also approved it. So this was a last-minute effort by [Metro] to just extract money, and I wanted to put a stop to it.”

Metro station naming-rights item pulled from board agenda to address concerns of Fairfax County leaders

One of the nation’s 10 largest banks, Capital One occupies the 470-foot Capital One Tower — the tallest occupied building in the Washington metro area. The company employs more than 9,000 people in the region and earned $28.5 billion in revenue last year.

The new 1,600-seat Capital One Hall performance center on the company’s campus will host symphonies, plays, concerts and other major events intended to draw people from across the region. The $120 million facility is expected to open this fall.

“As long as [the name change] is something that’s not a profitmaking thing but of public value, a public accommodation that will be used by our people, that’s okay,” said Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), a member of the finance panel’s transportation subcommittee, which approved the amendment.

While Metro receives funding from Virginia, Maryland and the District, it operates independently, with a board that includes representatives of each of the jurisdictions and the federal government. Howell’s amendment appears to threaten Metro’s right to name its own stations and negotiate its own agreements with private companies.

Competing versions of the budget bill that include the renaming stipulation are being debated by Virginia legislators, who are working out differences over school funding, restarting in-school instruction and other issues in a special session.

Metro said its governing board has not decided what it will do if Virginia’s share of capital funding is held up by the Senate’s demands. Capital One says it is staying away from the debate.

Marsden said he did not know much about the amendment, which slid through the transportation subcommittee virtually unnoticed with no discussion. But he had an explanation.

“It’s politics,” Marsden said.

Creative solutions

Capital One began lobbying for the name change last fall, asking the Fairfax County board for its support. County leaders unanimously voted on a resolution in September asking Metro for the change.

Metro often grants station name changes through requests from cities and counties, which are responsible for the costs of new signs, maps and other legal steps associated with making such a change. In Capital One’s case, the company offered to pay costs estimated at more than $320,000.

Over its 45-year history, Metro has chosen not to name or rename stops for widely agreed-upon points of reference that are privately owned or sponsored, such as Nationals Park or Capital One Arena, which has changed names multiple times. Granting one corporate request could leave the transit agency in a tight legal spot in its ability to reject others.

Strapped for cash, Metro considers selling station names and adding parking fees

In the case of Capital One, Metro’s board of directors expressed interest in exploring a sale or lease of the name, according to a Jan. 15 letter that Metro board chairman Paul C. Smedberg sent to Jeff McKay (D-At Large), chairman of the Fairfax board. “The McLean station offers a unique opportunity for commercial importance to the region, as transit properties in many cities are developing mutually beneficial partnerships through station naming sponsorships,” Smedberg wrote.

Smedberg wrote that he authorized Metro staffers to explore a naming-rights sponsorship with Capital One.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said transit officials had approached Capital One based on Smedberg’s direction, but she declined to say whether the company showed interest, calling it a “contractual matter.” The company declined to comment on its discussions with Metro.

A Capital One official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the sensitivity of the discussions said the company has not engaged in serious negotiations, because it is unclear about Metro’s intentions. While Smedberg has expressed interest in a possible sponsorship agreement, The board has not lifted its policy against selling commercial naming rights.

Howell said she was not approached by anyone to craft the amendment requiring Metro to change the name if it wanted its annual capital contribution from Virginia. She said that she spoke with Capital One before filing the amendment and that the company expressed displeasure at being charged for the name change.

“They were upset about being squeezed for money for a naming that was already approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors,” she said.

Howell said Capital One should not have to pay for signage for what will be a community theater and place of public use.

McKay said that Fairfax County leaders did not ask state senators to intervene and that the county does not support the budget amendment in Richmond.

“Though I’m aware of a budget amendment in Richmond that has been proposed since our action, the County had nothing to do with it and we do not support it,” he said in a statement. “We have not been involved further.”

Capital One said in a statement that its representatives did not lobby state legislators for the amendment and have not discussed the amendment with Fairfax County officials.

“Capital One joined state and local leaders and community organizations supporting this routine request and we committed to cover the County’s costs of the name change,” the company said. “We are not involved in the budget negotiation process and hope [Metro] and Fairfax County engage in productive dialogue.”

Metro issued a statement saying it was aware of the legislation while declining to discuss specifics. The agency has made no decision on how it plans to respond to the amendment.

Support from Va. legislators

The Virginia General Assembly committed in 2018 to provide Metro with annual funding for capital expenses, but lawmakers have the power to withhold it. Two years ago, Maryland withheld funding from Metro for months until the transit agency agreed to more auditing and detailed financial reporting.

Howell’s amendment was inserted into Senate Bill 1100 before a Feb. 10 meeting of the transportation subcommittee, records show. Marsden said he did not recall any committee discussion on the addition, but he said its intent seems to be in line with the interests of Virginians and Metro customers.

“Things that are public venues that are going to be used by the public — which is what this hall is all about — I see [their names] on other subway stops around the country,” Marsden said.

Metro might sell naming rights to its stations. Any buyers out there?

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a member of the subcommittee, said in a text message that he did not “recall being part of the subcommittee discussion.” A staff member from the office of Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said she was not involved in the amendment. Four other members of the Senate subcommittee — Chairman George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield), Stephen D. Newman (R-Forest) and Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) — did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment.

Capital One is a large donor to several Virginia politicians, which is not unusual for a company of its size. Campaign finance records show it donated $134,550 to various political campaigns in the state last year, including to those of Howell and several members of the transportation subcommittee.

In a 2012 survey, a majority of Metro riders said they did not want commercial entities attached to station names, a factor that went into the Metro board’s consideration when it last formally revisited the naming-rights policy, that same year.

Board members briefly picked up the issue again in 2017 amid the financial strain of a $125 million budget hole. In 2019, months after Amazon committed to building a second headquarters in Northern Virginia, Metro explored the possibility again, asking consulting companies to submit proposals on how much money they thought the transit agency could bring in by renting out station names.

Amazon Station? Metro considers selling naming rights, again.

In November 2019, Metro seemed ready to take the plunge. Metro staffers brought board members an offer to sell a “Fortune Global 500 Company” the naming rights to the Innovation Center station on the yet-to-open Silver Line extension, officials said at the time.

But the board never publicly discussed the proposal, which was pulled after Fairfax County supervisors opposed it.

In November 2020, Metro’s board approved requests from Fairfax and Prince George’s counties to rename two stops. The Tysons Corner station — next door to the McLean station — will become Tysons when the new Silver Line extension opens, while the Prince George’s Plaza station is being renamed Hyattsville Crossing.

In December, two more station names were tweaked. The transit system dropped “UVA” from the West Falls Church-VT/UVA station after the University of Virginia relocated one of its campuses. Meanwhile, the city of Alexandria successfully requested that Metro add “VT” to the new Potomac Yard station to mark the new Virginia Tech campus nearby.

None of the changes involve a corporate name.

Antonio Olivo and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report said the Senate bill would withhold $22 million from Metro if the bank name were not added to the McLean station name. The $22 million figure came from a separate provision in the legislation and is not related to the part of the bill that would withhold funds in the station name dispute.

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