'I just hope it’s not too awkward': The names of Metro stations and bus lines are now for sale

Board a bus sponsored by Google. Take the subway to the Madame Tussauds/Hollywood station. Or hop on the Tropicana Orange Line through the San Fernando Valley.

Under a policy approved this month by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the name of practically every part of Los Angeles County’s sprawling transit system will be up for sale, from train stations and bus lines to maintenance facilities, ticketing machines and parking garages.

The decision has raised some eyebrows among skeptics who argue that corporate naming rights could cause headaches for Metro — or just embarrass riders.

“I just hope it’s not too awkward,” said Brian Bond, 31, as he waited for a Red Line train downtown. Asked to elaborate on what names could cross the line, he paused, then said: “Viagra? No, wait. Diapers.”

Others have wondered: How would the names sound over an intercom? Pepsi Presents Pershing Square Station? The Metamucil Experience at North Hollywood? 

Proponents of the naming-rights policy admit some names would be more appealing than others, but say it’s hard to turn down free money that could be used to subsidize fares or upgrade the Metro system. 

“I was never really in favor of advertising on buses or some of the other things we’ve done,” John Fasana, mayor of Duarte and chairman of the Metro board, said at a recent meeting. “But I am less in favor of fare hearings.”

The naming-rights policy was proposed as part of a broader Metro initiative to stave off long-term operating deficits. It’s unclear how much revenue the program could bring in, because each deal will be negotiated separately.

Metro’s financial picture is rosier than it has been in years, following last month’s passage of Measure M. The half-cent sales tax for transportation projects will raise an estimated $860 million in 2018, and $120 billion over the first four decades of assessment.

Still, advertising income is also important, particularly because it doesn’t carry the same spending restrictions as sales tax revenue, Metro spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said.

The naming-rights guidelines will bar partnerships with tobacco, alcohol and adult entertainment companies, so transit riders won’t encounter a Bacardi bus or a Marlboro/Highland Park Gold Line station. The agreement also precludes sponsorship agreements with political and religious organizations.

Those guidelines, though, don’t protect Metro from the risk of partnering with a company that later faces a scandal, said Ira S. Kalb, a USC assistant professor of marketing. (The most famous example? Enron Field, a sponsorship the Houston Astros paid $2.1 million to terminate 28 years early.) 

Contracts will be negotiated to allow Metro to end the sponsorship in the event of an Enron-like disaster, officials say. The policy also precludes business with firms that have “a history of fraudulent, unethical or prejudicial behavior.”

That phrase, critics say, is vague enough to apply to the business dealings of most companies. Sheila Kuehl, a Los Angeles County supervisor and Metro director, said at a recent meeting that scandal seems “inevitable for about 31% of all corporations.”

Wells Fargo, for instance, is not tobacco, it’s not alcohol — but had we cut a deal with Wells Fargo, we would be embarrassed right now,” she said, referring to the recent scandal over the bank opening unauthorized accounts for millions of customers

Companies can face the risk from partnering with Metro too, Kalb said, particularly if something gruesome later happens at a station emblazoned with its logo.

Any naming-rights agreement that would raise more than $500,000 or last longer than five years would need the approval of the agency’s directors. Metro will also seek input from neighborhoods where the stations would be renamed, Tonilas said.  

Officials caution that Los Angeles riders should not expect immediate results or significant long-term profits. In other U.S. cities, transit agencies have largely been more enthusiastic about corporate sponsorship than the companies they hoped to woo. 

Boston has sought corporate sponsors for a handful of downtown rail stations twice in two decades without success. Orange County officials haven’t secured a sponsor for an expensive but little-used transit hub in Anaheim that opened two years ago.

In New York, transit officials pursued naming-rights deals for five years before inking a sole sponsorship — adding the name “Barclays Center” to the subway station closest to the Brooklyn arena. That deal will cost the developer $4 million over two decades. 

Two Philadelphia rail stations, renamed for AT&T and a local hospital, bring in more than $1 million annually for the local transit authority. In Denver and San Diego, universities have signed multi-year deals to add their names to rail lines. 

Metro’s next step will be hiring a consultant to assess what parts of the system could be sponsored and how much those rights would be worth, taking into account the location and the number of people who pass through, said Glen Becerra, Metro’s deputy executive officer for marketing.

Those valuations will be higher than ads plastered on the side of the bus or the back of a taxi, Kalb said, but much lower than the naming rights for a sports stadium, which reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. (“There’s a certain cache to being associated with a stadium that is higher than a Metro station,” he added.)

Metro will also consider awarding advertising in exchange for services, ranging from a corporation buying new ticketing machines plastered with its advertising to sponsoring the renovation of a run-down station. 

“A company could come in and want to enhance a certain bus line by outfitting it with WiFi and whatever else,” Tonilas said. “For them incurring those costs, we might say, ‘This is the Google Line.’”

That model is familiar in Chicago, where transportation officials cut a deal with Apple as the tech giant prepared to open a store in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 2009. 

Apple agreed to spend $3.9 million to spruce up the property next to its sleek new storefront, including refurbishing a dingy “L” rail station and converting an unused bus turnaround area into a pedestrian plaza with plantings, tables and chairs.

In return, transit officials leased the plaza to Apple for no additional charge.

Chicago also provides free rides sponsored by MillerCoors to New Year’s Eve revelers. 

The L.A. policy raises questions about how Metro will handle stations that already bear the name of institutions that have not paid for naming rights, including the Duarte/City of Hope station on the Gold Line and two Expo Line stations adjacent to USC.

Those stations, in theory, could be renamed at the wish of the highest bidder.  Those decisions would be made by the Metro board, officials said.

Any sponsored Metro station name will still reflect the location, Becerra said. For example, the closest stop to the home of the Kings, Lakers, Clippers and Sparks could be renamed “Staples Center at Pico” or “L.A. Live/Pico.” 

“At the end of the day, this is still the riders’ system,” Becerra said. “We won’t ever lose that as a priority.”

Any futures sponsorship agreements should spark lively discussion from Metro’s directors.

Kuehl, who said she disliked the increasing presence of corporate America in public space, said she would vote against most agreements, except for deals that would add context to station names, such as adding “Santa Monica Pier” to the Expo Line’s terminus station.

But, she added: “I don’t want to stop at a Coca-Cola station. I don’t care whether they paid more than Pepsi.”

laura.nelson@latimes.com

For more transportation news, follow @laura_nelson on Twitter.

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