WHAT'S IN A NAME?
If you're SEPTA, about $3 million.
That's what the transit authority will net from a $5 million deal to change the name of the subway station at Broad and Pattison to "AT&T Station." If SEPTA approves the deal on Thursday, Pattison Station will be a memory by August.
What's also in this name is an irresistible urge to offer other branding possibilities: How about renaming the City Hall for Ballard Spahr, the law firm of choice for so much public work? The Independence Hall stop on the Market-Frankford Line would be a perfect placement for Liberty Mutual or US Airways. Soon a ride on the subway would be like Sunday afternoon on ESPN - traveling from Bud Lite to Cialis to Just for Men shampoo.
Selling naming rights for transit stations raises some obvious questions - for example, will riders and tourists know where they are? It isn't necessary to know where Pattison Avenue is, after all, since the area includes Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field and the Wachovia Center. But what if, as SEPTA clearly hopes, this is just the first of other renamed stations? Will riders be given geographic clues or will they just have to memorize which corporation bought the rights to Oregon Avenue or Cecil B. Moore Avenue? And speaking of the onetime Columbia Avenue - which City Council renamed for Moore, a Philadelphia civil rights leader, in 1994 - shouldn't name changes to city landmarks be subject to public comment, if just a little? And the news last week that Wachovia Center will get soon get its fourth name (CoreStates to First Union to Wachovia to Wells Fargo in 14 years) makes us wonder if AT&T Station might have to be renamed if the cell phone giant bows out after its five-year deal, creating much confusion.
Here's the most troubling question: How does corporatizing public transit stations undercut the increasingly novel idea that the community should pay for services that benefit the community? And is there a danger in blurring the line between public and private in this way?
We have always believed that the name of Citizens Bank Park is one word too long: It ought to be Citizens' Park, for the people who paid for it. Indeed, selling commercial naming rights for publicly financed buildings can obscure the fact that the "small people," not the bank, paid to build a baseball stadium that most will never visit. We know - we lost the battle over stadiums long ago. That isn't sufficient reason to expand the practice.
SEPTA says it is only following the recommendations to increase advertising that were part of the Pennsylvania transportation reform act in 2007, but isn't there something qualitatively different between signs on the sides of buses and actually renaming a transit stop for a corporation?
We don't have an alternative source for the money SEPTA needs desperately, especially now in the midst of a deep recession. But even when the economy was in decent shape, politicians - and the people who elected them - have become more comfortable in relying on outside sources like the lottery or casinos to help pay for services like aid to the elderly or education.
We should have learned from these experiences that taking corporate money in this way leads to less, not more, public commitment to the so-called social contract.