Just don't do it
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Monday, August 7, 2017, 5:00 AM
We all know the New York City subway system has seen better days. As delays and breakdowns nike d width mount, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota and Gov. Cuomo have floated one piece of a possible solution: The agency will consider selling corporate naming rights to subway stations. So you might soon hear your conductor saying, "Next stop, MasterCard Bleecker Street," or "This is West 4th Street, brought to you by Verizon."
It's easy to see why Cuomo and Lhota would embrace this idea. For Lhota, it would provide revenue for badly needed repairs and maintenance. And Cuomo would be able to tell straphangers that he's providing some relief without raising their taxes or fares.
But the reality is that selling station naming rights is bad public policy, driven by the same kind of political cowardice and irresponsibility that got us into our current subway mess. And it comes at a price that's hard to quantify but impossible to deny.
The MTA has sold station naming rights before in 2009, for $4 million, to Barclays, the British bank that holds the naming rights to the Brooklyn Nets' basketball arena.
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The station near the arena is now officially known as "Atlantic Avenue Barclays Center." It's printed on maps and signs, and the conductors say it when the trains roll in. The world hasn't come to an end. So what's the problem?
It's one thing to name a station after a major landmark located right above it. But something like "Microsoft Union Square," which is the kind of thing the MTA is contemplating, would just turn the name into a giant advertisement.
That would be a big step in the relentless spread of advertising and corporate culture into public space. Branding has crept absolutely everywhere; do we really need simple subway station names, all across the city, to be coopted by corporations?
It would also set a terrible precedent of selling off civic assets to generate revenue. Imagine a town where you drive over the T Mobile Bridge to get to Coca Cola High School, at the corner of Comcast and Allstate Streets and the town itself is called Intel ville. But until recently, the idea of selling subway station names and other naming rights seemed far fetched too.
It's a slippery slope, because once corporate advertising takes root, it tends to spread. We get inured to it. Look at the world of sports: Stadiums and arenas used nike 8 flex-repel to be named after the teams that played in them, or else they had civic minded names like Memorial Stadium or Veterans Arena.
Now the sports landscape is littered with names like Camping World Stadium and the Smoothie King Center. The Dolphins' stadium seems to rename itself every couple of years. NBA teams are adding corporate advertising patches on their jerseys this fall.
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Maybe you're willing to trade civic identity for money. If the choice is between lousy service and corporate named stations, it's a no brainer.
But that's a false choice. There are other options out there: responsible taxation, rejiggering the MTA budget so suburbanites pay their fair share (suburban transit is subsidized to a much greater extent than the subway system is) and so on.
Yes, those are difficult choices, but political will is like a muscle if you don't exercise it, it atrophies. Taking corporate money is a quick fix that's just another way to kick the can and avoid making tough decisions. That's the same mindset that allowed the subways and the rest of our nation's infrastructure to fall into disrepair in the first place.
Once the public sector starts relying on corporate money in this way, it becomes dependent on it. What if there's another financial crisis and companies don't renew their naming rights deals? Then you have no way to replace that revenue, because politicians have been trained not to make hard choices and voters have been trained not to accept those choices.
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It becomes a feedback loop of bad behavior patterns enabling each other. The reality is that there's no free lunch, no corporate savior, no pot of gold. We all have to pay as we go and start behaving like grown ups instead of believing in the myth of essential services being provided by an outside benefactor yes, even if it means paying a bit more in taxes.
It's true that we live in a free market system, and that selling off subway names is just a smart way of doing business. But there's a difference between a market economy and a market society, where literally everything is for sale. And as for running governmental affairs like a business, we currently have a businessman in the White House. How's that working out?