If things go according to plan for Sacramento Regional Transit District, light-rail riders in the California capital may soon find themselves in stations rebranded with corporate names. The idea to sell station naming rights and advertising comes at a time of significant change for the agency, which recently hired a new general manager and proposed service cuts that could affect one of three light-rail lines.
To date, Regional Transit has never sold advertising in its 53-station system or on train cars themselves. The agency put out a request for proposals three weeks ago asking for companies to bid on ad space in stations and on trains as well as potentially buy the naming rights to an entire station.
General Manager and CEO Henry Li says funding from advertising and naming rights isn’t meant to close budget gaps so much as free up money to upgrade the system or improve service. Li was promoted to general manager in June with a directive to improve rider safety and system performance and clean up the trains, buses and stations, all of which slipped in recent years.
Advertising is, of course, commonplace in transit systems. Selling station naming rights is less so, but there are examples throughout the country. In Minneapolis, U.S. Bank paid $300,000 for the naming rights to the station closest to U.S. Bank Stadium where the Minnesota Vikings play. Philadelphia sports fans heading to a pro game via a SEPTA train get off at AT&T Station. Tampa’s TECO streetcar is named for the TECO electric company.
Dan Allison hopes that increased funding might help stave off some of the proposed bus route cuts or service reductions. Allison is a member of volunteer advocacy group Sacramento Transit Advocates and Riders (STAR). The group has not taken a formal position on the advertising and naming rights plan, but they are advocating strongly against some of the cuts.
“Regional Transit is considering some pretty big cuts to important bus service that’s heavily used by low-income people, either decreasing frequency or just plain cutting some bus routes,” Allison says. “Our position as a group is that cutting frequency eventually leads to the failure of a bus line. It’s a rare person who can wait an hour for a bus.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a transit advocacy group, STAR is strongly in favor of cutting the light-rail’s Green Line. The smallest and least-used line in the system, it runs from a mostly incomplete new development called Township 9 to downtown. Trains only operate on weekdays at 30-minute intervals compared to 15 minutes on the Blue and Gold lines. Li says Green Line ridership is about half of the other two.
“The Green Line needs to be shut down until the development at the end of it justifies its service,” says Allison. “We recognize that changes need to be made, the agency is losing money and changes do have to be made. We felt that cutting the Green Line would be the most appropriate one to take off the top of the list.”
Li says, however, the Green Line is off the chopping block. “Currently, Green Line ridership is not ideal,” the GM says. “But the Green Line will present very important transit-oriented development potential. … That area is going to boom in the near future.”
The advertising and naming RFP process is open for another few weeks, but Li says they’ve already gotten some interest from companies about buying naming rights.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.