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A person enters a subway car in New York City.

KAI RYSSDAL:


ALISA ROTH: A lot of New York's subway stations have names that are purely functional.
SUBWAY TRAIN DRIVER: This is 33rd street. Next stop, Queensboro Plaza.

)Others are practically icons:

SUBWAY TRAIN DRIVER: Grand Central Station.

A couple of years ago, the MTA proposed a novel way to raise money for the ailing and overworked system: Sell corporate naming rights to the subway stations. Much like cities have been doing with their sports arenas.

Now the transit authority's under new leadership. And innovative financing is back on the table.

Gary Ruskin heads Commercial Alert, a nonprofit that tries to limit the reach of advertising. He thinks civic names should reflect a community's history and values.

GARY RUSKIN: They shouldn't be billboards for corporate self-promotion. And NYC isn't some kind of corporate plantation where we sell everybody's eyeballs to Madison Avenue.

But beyond the moral issue is a practical one. Many of the city's subway stations are damp, crumbling, smelly places. Who'd want their company name associated with that?

Kevin Bartram negotiates sponsorships and naming rights. He says the trick to successful deals is to making sure the public realizes it's getting more than a few corporate logos on the wall.

KEVIN BARTRAM: That's going to be harder for everybody to see the value in that than if that's attached to some form of refurbishment of the station, some new services that are being provided to subway riders, some other beautification project.

He says there are limits to where corporate names should appear. Especially when you're talking about public spaces.

BARTRAM: The stations that would be most valued by companies to name would also be those that would also be those that would probably be met with the most resistance by the public.

It's easy to see why Goldman Sachs might want to own a station like Wall Street. Or why Macy's might want to name the stop at its flagship store on 34th Street. But the possibilities are endless. Maybe Clorox would like to take on a particularly stinky station. Or bug-killer Raid could adopt one where roaches are a problem.

Robert Paaswell studies public transport at City University of New York. He says selling naming rights would only bring in a few million dollars at each station. It may sound like a lot, but he says it's actually pretty paltry.

ROBERT PAASWELL: When you look at the billion-dollar budgets that the transit system has, it really doesn't go very far. It really doesn't solve any problems. It puts a small amount of cash into what paint one station or something?

He says the real issue is that the MTA has been underfunded for decades. And the city needs to come up with ways to bring in a consistent cash flow: A new tax system that makes landlords pay for proximity to the subway system. Or a deal to make developers chip in for upkeep.

He says, in any case, if the city has to look for corporate sponsorship, there are better ways to do it than something like big golden arches over the ticket booths.

SUBWAY TRAIN DRIVER: Times Square is the next stop.

Of course, if companies do start putting their names on stations, it won't be the first time. One of the Big Apple's best known spots is named for the famous newspaper whose offices were located there.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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