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For the better part of the last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been toying with the idea of naming rights, and toward the end of 2013, they issued an RFP as part of the initiative. For the low, low price of $1 million a year, you could buy the rights to name a T stop. Well, the results are in, and the project is, you will be surprised to hear, a total flop.

As the Boston Business Journal reported yesterday, the MBTA will make no money from the program this year. The responses to the RFP were due yesterday, and only one company — JetBlue — submitted a bid. Furthermore, their bid came in well below the minimum requirements. The MBTA failed to disclose the total JetBlue bid for rights to the blue line, but the agency had set the minimum bid at $1.2 million.

The MBTA isn’t closing the door to future naming initiatives, but agency officials seem unaware of the practical realities of the situation. One spokesman told MassLive.com that it was “unclear” why more companies did not submit proposals. The Loch Ness Monster of transit agencies lives on for another day.

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Every few months, another transit agency comes out with a proposal to generate revenue through naming rights, and every few months, I sit back and shake my head. The money and the interest just hasn’t materialized yet, and while its time might one day arrive, selling naming rights is much more of an idea in theory rather than practice. This time around, Boston is going to learn this lesson.

Up in Beantown, the MBTA has some ambitious expansion plans on the table. Using DMUs, the transit agency hopes to drastically expand its reach over the next ten years and will of course need money to do it. One way to generate funds could be through naming rights, and although the MBTA has been talking about naming rights for nearly a year, the agency seems ready to try to draw in advertisers.

Boston Magazine has the story:

For the low, low price of $1 million, corporations and businesses can slap their name on select MBTA stops or stations, or even name an entire rapid transit line after their brand. [A few weeks ago,] the MBTA put out Requests for Proposals for the naming rights on nine stations along the system, which includes Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, Park Street, North Station, State Street, Boylston, South Station, and Yawkey Way.

The asking price to add a moniker to each station starts at $1 million per year, except for Yawkey Way, which starts at $500,000. The contracts would last five years. The call for interested companies to shell out cash to rename stops and stations also includes an opportunity to have their name on some rapid transit lines—specifically the Red, Blue, and Green Lines. According to documents, prices vary for each line, but the most expensive starting bid is on the Green Line for $2 million per year.

If a company opts to purchase transit line naming rights, they would have their brand printed on station maps, and on system signage. The chance to take over the naming rights of certain MBTA properties, under the “Corporate Sponsorship Program,” was a directive of the state legislature as part of an extensive transportation bill passed over the summer.

That last line — that’s the crazy part. In the same bill that will allow the MBTA to run T service later than it currently does, the Massachusetts legislature required the agency to issue RFPs for station naming rights. Agency officials still believe naming rights could generate upwards of $18 million for transit, but so far, the grand total has been a whopping $0 in revenue after two years of searching.

According to the MBTA’s RFP, advertisers could host promotional events in their stations, have their brand broadcast via the subway’s PA system and have their logos appear on the T subway map. Rightly so, though, station names would retain their geographic identifier while adding the advertiser much as the MTA has done with Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center.

On the one hand, it’s admirable for the MBTA to try, and maybe they can be the ones to succeed. On the other hand, it seems like these efforts have been a waste of time and money. SEPTA in Philadelphia has managed to sell one subway station, and even the MTA hasn’t been successful here in New York. Furthermore, the MBTA is asking for an annual fee that’s five times what the MTA received from Barclays for stations that have, at most, two-thirds the ridership of Atlantic Ave. Many have much less than that.

Overall, the idea of corporate naming rights as a revenue generator seems to have peaked. The Nationals’ baseball stadium in DC, for instance, has gone without a corporate sponsor for nearly a decade, and Met Life paid only around $1 million per year to name the new Meadowlands stadium. As skeptical as I am, though, if the MBTA’s legally-required due diligence leads anywhere, it will have been worth it.

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In case you were afraid that New York is the only city where current mayoral candidates are offering laughable transit proposals, worry no longer. Thanks to our neighbor to the north with the far inferior baseball franchise, we have company. As Bostonians convene to elect a new civic leader, those hoping to inherit Tom Menino’s mantle are starting to promise the sky when it comes to the T.

As a variety of candidates take to the streets, transportation issues are front and center. This time, though, candidates are talking about money. They recognize the T’s limitations. It closes earlier; the MBTA is constantly scrounging around for state dollars; the city has little control over its own transit system. But the funding proposals are far more creative than anything we’ve seen in New York.

In The Globe, Martine Powers summarized the campaign:

Transportation is a frequent topic on the campaign trail, with candidates releasing detailed platforms coupled with gimmicky appeals to voters, such as three days of car-free campaigning.

In a Boston Globe survey answered by eight of the 12 mayoral hopefuls, many of the candidates’ visions for Boston’s transportation future aligned: Most they said they plan to push for 24-hour T service, will embrace technology to reduce gridlock in the city, institute major changes in the city’s taxi industry, promote biking, and encourage car-free commuting.

The differences in candidates’ platforms are in the details. Councilor Michael P. Ross said he would consider offering special late-night licenses to bars and restaurants that would allow them to stay open later, with the fees funding extended T hours, while Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley suggested that Boston sports teams and cultural institutions bundle CharlieCards with their season tickets and annual memberships, adding an influx of cash to the MBTA.

Beyond these ideas, certain mayoral candidates have also suggested that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority beg the region’s myriad universities for funding assistance or ask hospitals and corporations — those economic drivers with workers who need late-night transportation — to chip in. Of course, since the MBTA is a state-sponsored agency, these suggestions will be for naught, but they’re far better than the Triboro RX SBS route or Joe Lhota’s park-and-ride plans.

But while we can nod knowingly in Boston’s direction, something is driving this push toward outlandishly inane or inanely outlandish transit ideas in mayoral campaigns. Is it because cities should have tighter control over their transit systems? Is it because states and the feds aren’t adequately funding transportation investment? Are these zany ideas simply a cover for an unwillingness to do anything serious? I’m sure the answer is somewhere betwixt and between all of these questions, and the answers are rather uncomfortable.

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Even with a corporate name, the intricate Atlantic Ave. tiling remains on the Brooklyn station’s walls. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

As my Brighton Beach-bound B train departed DeKalb Avenue last night, the conductor mangled the next stop. “Barclays Center, Atlantic-Pacific,” he said, promoting the corporate sponsorship while restoring the station complex’s former name to what many consider it to be the rightful position. I chuckled at the name and realized that $200,000 a year doesn’t go that far. It is but a drop in the bucket as far as the MTA’s bottom line is concerned, and yet it seems to represent the pinnacle of subway corporate sponsorship in New York City.

Now, in this age of transit austerity, naming rights and creative corporate partnerships seem to be the ideas that just won’t die. Every now and then some state legislature is urging his or her local transit agency to go out and find some corporate sponsors. They wonder how hard it can really be. After all, sports teams and non-profits do this all the time.

If only life and the advertising industry were that easy. Transit agencies though do not carry positive connotations as sports stadiums do. People scorn the subways and look down upon the MTA. Thus, transit naming rights are a delicate matter for any corporation, and the executives in charge know it. Barclays was willing to pony up the bucks because the arena is a destination atop the old Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. station. For everyone else, the equation tilts toward no investment.

That said, the effort to secure these dollars goes ever onward. Yesterday, the Madrid Metro announced a three-year, €3 million deal to rename an entire subway line for Vodafone, the European cell phone carrier. As part of the agreement, all signs and maps in the system’s 272 stations and 2311 cars will include the Vodafone logo along with the Line 2 and Sol station names. Recorded announcements will include the name, and Vodafone will earn some display advertising rights in stations as well.

For Madrid, this figure represents a 10 percent bump in advertising income, but it’s a modest amount at best. In U.S. dollars, the investment is $1.3 million a year for an entire line that sees 122,000 passengers a day. Still, Ignacio González, president of the Community of Madrid, boasted of the deal, “Naming rights are an enormous source of income for the metro. We have another 11 lines and many more stations to offer.” Enormous is all relative.

Closer to home, the Massachusetts Senate wants the MBTA to sell station naming rights, and these politicians seem to think they can out-do Madrid. Their off-the-cuff estimates believe the MBTA can generate $20 million in revenue. It’s unclear over what time period the MBTA would realize should revenue, but this isn’t the first time Massachusetts has pondered such an arrangement. So far, though, no naming rights deals have materialized in Boston, but the politicians press on, undeterred by the fiscal reality.

The promise of naming rights revenue, I’ve long maintained, is a false one that allows politicians to shirk on their responsibilities to transit agencies. Instead of finding long-term, sustainable funding sources, politicians point fingers at transit agencies that simply cannot sell undesirable or less-than-lucrative naming rights to their transit assets. Thus, transit systems do not get paid, and transit agencies do not enjoy progressive policies or true investments. Madrid’s $3.9-million, three-year deal should be a warning: The money for transformative transit investments won’t be found in naming rights, and the sooner politicians who control the purse strings come to grips with that reality, the better off the transit riding public will be.

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In Boston, the MBTA is reminding its customers of the dangers of flu season. (Via @mbtaGM on Twitter)

A few days ago, I was taking my usual 2 or 3 train ride to work from Brooklyn when I heard a sound emerging from one end of the subway car. It wasn’t an unnatural sound, but it was a deep, hacking sound — one that caused me to raise an eyebrow. A man, you see, was in the process of coughing up a lung or two, and he just couldn’t stop. A few passengers exchanged those knowing looks that said, “I hope this guy doesn’t have anything serious,” and we all breathed a sigh of relief when he exited the train at Wall Street.

For germaphobes, riding the subway can be a truly traumatic experience. Despite their best efforts, straphangers just aren’t clean, and subway cars aren’t tidied up more often than once every few hours if that. They aren’t sterilized or sanitized in such a way that would bring comfort to many, and with millions of riders carrying who knows what in and out of the system, the subways would spread an epidemic just as fast as they deliver us from Rego Park to Midtown. For the rest of us, we cast wary eyes upon sick passengers and try to remember to wash our hands after getting out.

Lately, although I fall into the latter category, I’ve found myself paying a bit more attention to what I touch in the subways and the people around me. It’s hard not to when tales of a flu epidemic are splashed across the front pages of our newspapers. So far, Manhattan hasn’t seen the worst of the viruses spreading across the area. Rather, Philadelphia and Boston have gotten it much worse, but it seems to be only a matter of time.

In Boston, the MBTA has started taking steps to protect its riders. BostInno’s Steve Annear has a report:

To help combat the sickness spreading, MBTA managers met with SJ Services, the contractor responsible for cleaning subway cars, and directed workers to pay extra close attention to changing out the water used for cleaning as frequently as possible, and to not re-use rags. “Transportation managers have also stressed that the cleaners always use latex gloves and focus particularly on grab bars and hand straps,” according to T Spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

Pesaturo said the MBTA also has plans to play public service announcements through the loud speakers on the subway and display messages on digital boards, reminding riders to wash their hands often with soap and water and cover their nose and mouth when sneezing.

But even with all these precautions in place, experts say it’s easy to contract the flu when clustered with congested or coughing passengers. According to the Center for Disease Control, people can catch the flu from just six-feet away. “Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs,” according to health officials from the CDC. “Less often, a person might also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.”

That’s enough to drive even those among us with the hardiest immune systems into a pandemic-inspired frenzy. But that’s always the risk we take when traveling by public transit. It’s only as clean as we make it and allow it to be.

So far, the MTA hasn’t taken any public steps to combat the spread of disease underground, but it could as conditions worsen. In the meantime, we can do each other some favors. Staying home while sick and washing up at a destination are the best approaches. The subways can spread a virus in the blink of an eye, and no one really wants to get sick.

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When it comes to public-private partnerships, transit agencies and those in the private sector willing to participate have often struggled with their projects. We’ve seen some station rehabs succeed, some naming rights efforts falter and some private partners begin to understand why transit operators struggle with the finances.

In New York, one of the more problematic public-private partnerships has concerned the Atlantic Yards project. While more of a direct sale, Bruce Ratner’s obligations involved transit. In a nutshell, the MTA gave Ratner a sweetheart price for the air rights to the Vanderbilt Yards in Brooklyn with the original promise of a new nine-track train yard for $225 million. In 2009, the MTA agreed to a reduction in the size of the train yard. Ratner would have to build only a seven-track facility instead. A sweetheart deal had just gotten sweeter.

Now, we learn that despite a guaranteed delivery date of 2016, Ratner is facing delays in the construction of the train yard. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the delays are due to “higher-than-expected costs and a sluggish economy.” These same excuses have been percolating around the Vanderbilt Yards for years.

Brown had more:

Forest City spokesman Joseph DePlasco said the yard will still be completed on time. The developer has already built a portion of the yard, he said, and other related work will continue.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the developer has agreed to do $10 million of additional work in the interim, and the LIRR is using a temporary rail yard meanwhile. “From our perspective, very little is changing here,” Mr. Lisberg said…

Forest City had previously agreed with the MTA to get construction on the new yard fully underway by June 30. But in recent months, the developer sought to push off that date. They recently reached an agreement with the agency to push off that date until Dec. 31, 2013, the terms of which were disclosed to MTA board members this week.

I’m not quite prepared to draw too many sweeping generalizations here. The economy has indeed been sluggish, and the MTA can’t do any better with projects it oversees itself. For us to expect Ratner, who has been bleeding money for years, to do any better would be foolish. Still, this delay, which clearly risks the target completion date, is just another black eye for a project replete with them.

Meanwhile, in Boston, we learn of a public-private partnership done right. New Balance, the shoe giant, has pledged to fund a rail station in the Allston-Brighton area as part of a $500 million development plan in the area. The company will fund the $16 million commuter rail stop that will service its new headquarters, and this total includes “all permitting, design, construction and annual maintenance costs,” a Boston.com reporter said last week.

Here is a company that recognizes the need for a commuter rail stop and is willing to take the steps to see it through to reality. It’s possible then to form a public-private partnership that works, just like it’s possible to screw one up.

Categories : Brooklyn, MBTA
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In a story familiar to New Yorkers, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is facing record ridership as it bottom link will soon lead to fare hikes and service cuts. As the Boston Globe reports today, October saw a record 1.35 million rides per average weekday across all MBTA subways, buses and commuter trains as the Massachusetts economy improves and gas prices remain high. Cuts, however, are on the horizon.

As the Globe notes, the MBTA is facing a $161 million operating deficit and is considering service cuts and fare hikes that would go into effect next summer. Amidst high ridership, Boston transit advocates are wary of the move. “I’m real concerned . . . because we could take what is obviously a very important and significant trend and pull the rug out from under it,” Richard A. Dimino, head of a group called A Better City, said. “The T is the workhorse for the Massachusetts economy.”

As with the MTA in New York City, the MBTA is carrying $6 billion in debt, and the deficit could lead lawmakers to eye new taxes for transit subsidies and a fare increase to “stave off significant service reductions.” It is, of course, the same old story: As costs increase and pressure to keep the fares low and affordable mounts, transit agencies slip into debt without state support. The only options are either higher taxes or higher fares. It’s not an ideal choice on either end.

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Once upon a time in 2008, the MTA and its advertising partner Titan proposed GPS-based advertising for New York City buses. The idea was a simple one: By equipping buses with LED screens and GPS responders, Titan could feed location-based ads to buses around New York. In 2009, the authority even tested a few buses with these next-gen ads, but the idea has seemingly fallen by the wayside. Likely, the costs were too high to justify the technology.

Up in Boston, we receive word of a similar initiative with an auditory twist. The MBTA is thinking of selling location-specific audio ads on its buses. Ben Wolfrord from The Globe has more:

For the second time in four years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering selling audio ads on public transit as a way to drum up new revenue for the cash-strapped agency. A new pitch calls for targeted ads on buses that would be triggered by GPS technology. When the bus passes a particular business, an ad for that shop could play over the vehicle’s loudspeaker. If the audio advertising idea can generate money for the MBTA without irritating riders, officials said they will give it a try.

In 2007, the agency’s T- Radio, a program that mixed music and talk on T station platforms was short-lived. Hundreds of complaints poured in, and the MBTA killed the initiative after two weeks, before ads were aired. The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.’’

Before the end of the month, MBTA officials will hear a pitch from Ohio-based Commuter Advertising, which has launched similar advertising with several transit authorities, from Toledo, Ohio, to suburban Chicago, since its founding in 2008. “The company was founded by two transit riders,’’ said Russ Gottesman, cofounder of Commuter Advertising. For that reason, he said, they have the riders’ interests and their tolerance levels at heart. If the ads are profitable, Gottesman said, it could help prevent fare hikes.

According to The Globe, Commuter Advertising has figured out how to exploit audio ads that don’t annoy passengers. These ads would be short — only 29-39 words — and would play “when a bus drives past a business whose owner has purchased air times.” Only a few minutes per hour would be devoted to ads, and other cities — including Champaign, Illinois, have deployed these successfully.

As Boston debates this potentially revenue-generating projects, I wonder how New Yorkers would respond to such an auditory intrusion. Already, our daily rides are saturated with noise. Announcements than range from the unhelpful to the annoying bombard subway riders, and advertisements seem to be the next logical step. After all, the FIND displays have a space for video ads that the MTA doesn’t currently exploit; why not use the public address system to generate revenue?

For some reason, we seem to be more sensitive to paid advertisements than to run-of-the-mill announcements, but if these measures can drive revenue into the pockets of cash-starved transit agencies, why not? The MBTA thinks it can avert fare hikes if it can just find alternate sources of revenue, but that seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Still, if the choices are some audio ads or service cuts, I’ll take the ads every which way ’til Sunday.

Categories : MBTA, Subway Advertising
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In Philadelphia, SEPTA has sold the rights to just one subway station. (Photo by flickr user Saturdave)

Every few months, as budget news trickles in and transit executives start talking about alternative sources of money and revenue streams, naming rights are dragged up by activists and enthusiasts. The idea is that resourceful authorities looking to generate free money can sell naming rights to private companies who stand to benefit from brand recognition. Disney owns Times Square above ground so why not sell the name of the Times Square subway station to the company?

On paper, it’s a great idea, and yet, in reality, it is one that has gained very little traction. In Philadephia, AT&T purchased the naming rights to the former Pattison Ave. complex at the end of the Broad St. line. They’re paying $3 million over five years. In New York, Barclays will append its name to the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. complex with the Nets’ new arena opens, and they’re paying $200,000 a year for 20 years for that privilege. Finally, Chicago’s CTA worked out a deal with Apple for a station renovation sponsorship that includes the right of first refusal for subsequent naming rights deals. Only in Dubai, which managed to sell naming rights on 21 of its 23 stations before the emirate’s economy went bust, has seen prolonged marketing success.

This uphill battle isn’t stopping others from trying. Up in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is desperately seeking sponsors. Donna Goodison wrote of the effort in The Boston Herald this weekend:

The MBTA is considering selling naming rights for everything from the lines and stations of its subway, bus and commuter systems to its Web site, smart phone apps and Charlie Cards.

“We want to do it tastefully and not over-commercialize the MBTA,” said general manager Richard Davey. “I would probably be reluctant to rename Park Street the Anheuser-Busch Park Street Station. But, at the same time … we’re very open to hearing proposals.”

The MBTA is trying to close a projected $126 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins in July. T officials are seeking a consultant to determine the feasibility of putting sponsors’ names on its assets and the revenue it could generate for the nation’s oldest subway system. “We’ve been pushing the last few months on a whole host of initiatives to try to capture non-fare revenue, from cracking down on parking scofflaws to possible naming rights,” Davey said.

More visual sponsorships are a possibility. If the Red Sox [team stats] wanted to sponsor the Fenway Station stop near its ballpark, the lettering could be redone in the team’s signature font. High usage and accessibility make the T a “compelling medium,” according to its pitch to consultants, but a smaller naming-rights effort went bust in 2001.

As Goodison notes, then-Transportation Security Kevin Sullivan tried to generate $22 million in revenue by offering up four popular subway stops — Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, South Station and Sullivan Square — for sale. The MBTA, however, received no offers even after extended the contract deadline and lowering the bid requirements. It’s beginning to sound like a familiar refrain.

Meanwhile, as MBTA officials claim that the advertising market has since changed, the WMATA board in Washington is heading down the naming rights route as well. As AFP recently reported, DC’s Metro is facing a $72 million, and it too will look toward naming rights to offset its gap. “We’re looking for creative ways to try to close that deficit,” Steven Taubenkibel, a WMATA spokesman, said.

In response to the news out of DC, Infrastructurist asks whether or not we should sell the naming rights to urban infrastructure, but I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the right question. Rather, is it at all reasonable to expect revenue from naming rights deals? Our limited experiences tell us that companies aren’t interested in shelling out big bucks, and many aren’t interested in shelling out any bucks. Citi, going through some tough financial times, declined to pay the MTA to slap its ballpark’s sponsorship on the Mets/Willets Point station in early 2009.

It seems that, for one reason or another, private companies just aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t want to be associated with something we view as dirty and unsafe. Maybe they don’t want their corporate image tarnished by association with beleaguered transit authorities. Maybe they don’t find the branding efforts to be worth it. Whatever the reason, municipalities aren’t earning much from naming rights deals, and the attempts to brand seem to be going nowhere fast. Until the money starts flowing in, perhaps it’s time to put this idea to bed.

Categories : MBTA, WMATA
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While the MTA announced plans for a seatless car experiment in August, Boston’s MBTA has beaten them to the punch. As the Daily News reports today, some Red Line cars in Boston will now be seatless an in effort to increase capacity. According to MBTA officials, this move should increase capacity by 10 percent. For local reaction, check out The Harvard Crimson. In New York, when four out of 10 cars feature the flip seats, the estimated increase is 18 percent. While some people will complain about missing out on the hypothetical seat, most rush hour riders don’t have the chance to rest anyway.

Categories : Asides, MBTA
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