Detroit on forefront of branding of public transit

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

What’s going to be the name of Detroit’s future streetcar line? Whatever billionaire Dan Gilbert wants it to be.

M-1 Rail will not be called M-1 Rail when the 3.3-mile modern streetcar debuts in 2017. It may be officially known as M-1 “RocketRail” – one of the names Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc. has federally trademarked. For $5 million, Detroit-based Quicken bought the right to name the line for 10 years.

Turns out, selling the naming rights for an entire mass transit system puts Detroit future streetcar on the forefront of a trend in public transportation, say several industry analysts.

“Detroit is on the cutting edge of this and we should expect to see more,” said Robert Puentes, who studies public transportation and infrastructure issues at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

That’s because M-1 Rail and other public transportation lines in the United States are being paid for in ways similar to professional sports stadiums – with a mix of public and private funding.

“Detroit is kind of going back to the future,’’ Puentes said. “Ever since the New Deal era, government paid for public transit,” he said referring to public infrastructure projects launched during the Great Depression eight decades ago.

Prior to that, public transit lines were at least partially paid for by private entities, big businesses mainly. That era is returning.

“Funding sources are becoming increasingly mixed. Detroit is just one example of many in the U.S.,” said Paul Lewis, vice president, policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank.

The M-1 Rail cost $140 million, with more than $100 million provided by corporations, foundations and other private funders. Another $37 million came from the federal government. State and local government also kicked in funding for road resurfacing and other infrastructure work.

And with private funding on the rise, the names of subway stations and bus lines in various cities are for sale. Philadelphia’s transit system sold the naming rights for a subway stop to AT&T. The name of Cleveland’s new rapid bus line that serves the city’s medical center is the Healthline. The Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals health systems bought the rights to name the route. And when Cincinnati’s new streetcar system debuts it, too, will be named by some entity that will pay millions.

The name of Detroit’s streetcar system is expected to be unveiled in early 2016. The rail will travel Woodward between Larned and West Grand Boulevard. It will have 20 stations serving 12 locations between Congress in downtown to West Grand Boulevard in the north end. For $3 million each, M-1 Rail has sold the rights to various private companies and others to sponsor each station.