BOSTON -- State transportation officials, looking for new revenue, are taking a cue from professional sports arenas and seeking corporate sponsors to purchase naming rights for subway stations here.
Sponsorship, which would allow businesses to plaster their names on and around stations in the nation's oldest and fourth largest subway system, could raise as much as $20 million in the next five years, state officials said.
Boston's mass-transit corporate sponsorship plan is the first of its kind, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
In the Bay Area, the BART Board of Directors voted Thursday to prohibit the sale of station names, shooting down a plan by one of the directors of San Francisco's Municipal Railway to look into slapping corporate monikers on Metro stations. BART owns the stations it shares with the Muni in downtown San Francisco.
The Massachusetts plan also has its opponents.
"This is a hucksterism that degrades history and community in favor of crass commercialism," Ralph Nader wrote recently to Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican who supports the plan. "Once you start selling off the names of history, where will it end? When you rename the Harvard Square... stop for McDonald's?"
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Kevin Sullivan said the Boston transit system is not in trouble: Its annual budget totals about $1 billion, and the system has no debt.
More money is needed because the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs the subway system, became financially independent last year for the first time in its 104-year history. Federal support for public transportation has declined, and transit fares, raised to $1 last year along metropolitan Boston routes, remain among the lowest in the nation.
"This is to inoculate the (transportation authority) down the road against any larger increase that may be necessary in terms of rate restructuring," Sullivan said.
"The fact is that it does not help to go back to the riders to put onerous rates on them, which will turn them away from public transportation and get them back into the automobiles that Mr. Nader finds so distasteful," he said.
State officials will not accept sponsorships from alcohol or tobacco companies, Sullivan said. The state's transportation department continues to fight a lawsuit brought by a pro-marijuana group seeking subway advertising rights.
The transportation authority intends for names to go to established companies.
A subway station is not a sports stadium, however, and Massachusetts officials might be overly optimistic in their revenue projections for an arrangement that one marketer said has "virtually no value."
Promotional opportunities are limited, hyphenated names can decrease the value of naming rights by 70 percent and no one can guarantee corporate longevity or name stability, said Dean Bonham, chairman of the Denver-based Bonham Group Inc., a sports and entertainment marketing firm.
"Any company that writes a check for $20 million or even $5 million is writing a check either because they are philanthropically inclined or mentally challenged," Bonham said. "The public officials in Massachusetts shouldn't expect to see a line of corporate executives around the block with checkbooks in their hip pockets."
Commuters offered mixed opinions recently at South End/Back Bay station, its facade draped with advertising banners for Macintosh computers.
One woman said the terminal would feel like entering another "walk-in commercial" in a city that lost the Boston Garden and gained the Fleet Center.
"It's almost dehumanizing the history of Boston," said Rebecca-Starr Price, 25.
Tom Magee, a longtime station vendor, suggested private sponsors could be good, especially for a terminal with no heat. "They might decide to put some money in this building," he said, his breath misting in the chilly air.
Some private institutions already have subway stop naming rights for free, including Harvard University, the New England Aquarium, the Museum of Fine Arts and Prudential Insurance, but they might have to pay in the future.