Metro could make some money from selling the naming rights to some of its stations. But the message that advertising would send is terrible.
The idea — which is up for discussion again by Metro’s board — is understandable.
The argument goes that if selling the names of stations means ensuring that Metro could return to the level of service it was once famous for, then why not? What’s wrong with, say, changing the name of “Gallery Place-Chinatown Station” to “Verizon Center-Chinatown?” New York City’s subway system did something like that and Gotham survived.
Tom Bulger, vice chairman of the D.C. Metro board’s Finance Committee, says the troubled agency needs money.
“We have a brutal budget year coming up,” Bulger said Monday. “I don’t think we can ask our riders to have increased fares.”
As it is, a lot of commuters have given up on Metro, choosing to take their chances with D.C.’s gridlock while gasoline is cheap and the subway continues to struggle with safety and reliability problems, he said.
Neither Congress nor the regional partners have established a tax that would give Washington’s mass transit system a dedicated funding stream. It’s been the Holy Grail since the first tracks were laid, and heaven knows when — or whether — such a tax will ever go into place.
But companies are always looking for ways to advertise. Metro makes an estimated $24 million a year from advertising, which is a pittance compared to its overall budget. But it’s still money, and no one has marched on Metro headquarters, even after the agency decided it was time to shill for booze. Washingtonians and their visitors have become accustomed to seeing Metro buses wrapped in ads and temporarily filled with wall-to-wall commercial advertising from companies that bought the temporary rights to that space.
What Bulger supports is the idea of a tightly written, pilot program that would allow Metro to cash in on station names with entities that wouldn’t embarrass anyone.
“I think we need to walk through that very carefully and vet it and have policies that wouldn’t allow an Enron to be a station name,” Bulger said.
Bulger, in an interview Monday, acknowledged that the proposal — outlined in Metro documents ahead of Thursday’s board meeting — will be a hard sell for the public. People frowned on the idea when it was floated five years ago. But Bulger — who first floated the idea at a board meeting in February — also expressed some frustration at critics of advertising or naming rights when Metro is in such dire straits. People who criticize the idea should dedicate their energy to establishing a dedicated funding source, he said.
I sympathize with Bulger, who has a financial obligation to ensure that Metro has the funds it needs. But this is not the way to do it.
Transforming a city bus into a rolling billboard isn’t such a big deal. But renaming the stations is another thing entirely. It also doesn’t matter whether the companies are reputable or not. The negative impact on Washington’s image would be lasting, if only by reinforcing the notion that even in the nation’s capital — especially in the nation’s capital — everything and everybody has a price.
Besides, reputable companies sometimes do disreputable things. Enron was once held up as a sharp, innovative company and a respected institution in its home town. There are perfectly decent companies out there whose products and advertising campaigns might liven up the Super Bowl halftime show but just leave Metro — and Washington — feeling grubbier than usual.
Read more of Tripping: