The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs Boston's subway system, recently shook up the transit world by offering to sell the names of its stations to bidding sponsors.
When contacted by a Deseret News reporter, officials with the Utah Transit Authority said they hadn't given the idea a lot of serious discussion, but they were open to it, particularly given the costs of building and operating expanded light-rail lines here.
They might want to rethink that. So far, the idea has been a huge flop in Boston. Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that not a single corporation had bid for the naming rights to a station. Officials were said to be refining the proposal and reducing the asking price, rather than giving up on the concept.
Maybe it is an idea whose time has not yet come. With the economy slowing down, corporations are less prone to taking risks by venturing into uncharted territory. Or perhaps the reasons are simpler. Perhaps corporations understand that a transit station isn't the same as a football stadium or a basketball arena. The public tends to tolerate corporate sponsorships of those facilities. In Salt Lake City, for example, people generally understand that Delta Airlines helped make it possible for Larry Miller to build an arena worthy of a competitive team, without having to go to taxpayers for anything other than help acquiring the land.
But a transit stop may be different. At least in Boston the idea has led to some opposition from people who think crass commercialism has reached a new low.
People gain a certain attachment to the transit station in their neighborhoods. If named properly, these provide a sense of place, an identity that builds pride and recognition. Adding the name of a soft-drink company or some other corporate giant to this would cheapen it.
The Salt Lake City Council has been grappling with names along the new TRAX line to the University of Utah. Council members decided to hyphenate three of them: City Hall-Library Square Station, Central City-Trolley Station and Ninth Street-Gilgal Garden Station.
Those are names with a bit of class. They describe places, and they give new riders a sense of geography, as well.
We understand the need for money. Light-rail fares do not cover the cost of operating the system. But there is a point at which the way one raises money begins to hurt the product itself.
Frankly, this would be a more difficult decision to make if Boston's efforts had proven successful. Denver has had limited success selling sponsorships along its new downtown line, but those are to corporations that have a physical presence along the tracks. Open bidding remains a novel and unproven concept in the naming game. For now, neither the public nor the business world seems ready for it.