June 2nd, 2009

Latest Muni Revenue-Generator: Naming Rights

By Mike Aldax
The San Francisco Examiner

It could be the Rice-A-Roni cable car. Or perhaps the Levi’s streetcar.

The idea of selling the naming rights of The City’s iconic cable cars and the historic streetcars was tossed into the fiscal ring Tuesday as the latest save for the cash-strapped Municipal Transportation Agency.

On a recent trip to Chicago, Muni Director Malcolm A. Heinicke noticed many streets are named after local dignitaries or historic figures, and that sparked the idea to possibly sell naming rights for San Francisco’s historic vehicles.

He envisions that groups could raise funds to name one of the 40 cable cars or the nearly 90 streetcars after a similarly iconic San Franciscan or local institution.

The revenue from selling the naming rights could be used to fix and restore those vehicles.

“We are blessed in this city to have these beautiful historic streetcars,” Heinicke said. “But the maintenance costs [for the streetcars] are significant.”

For example, Muni recently spent $1.9 million to restore one of its inoperable streetcars so it can return it to service in 2012.

Those repair costs play into the transit agency’s budget woes. Fresh off closing a $129 million deficit for next fiscal year with significant fare increases and service reductions, a new shortfall has emerged in recent weeks due to deeper reductions in various revenue sources.

To close that gap, the transit agency’s board members and staff have been tasked with coming up with “out-of-the-box” ideas to gain additional revenue that will not burden riders.

And though Heinicke said it’s just an idea, it’s one that is certain to create controversy.

Two years ago, residents vehemently opposed a plan to allow “discrete” corporate logos in visitor areas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The idea was struck down following two months of public debate in which critics labeled the plan “crass commercialism” and a “degrading” of the iconic span.

Voters have also said no way to selling the naming rights to Candlestick Park, although Supervisor Bevan Dufty introduced legislation last month that would authorize The City to do so to aid its ailing budget.

“This is a climate in which I am willing to live with naming rights,” Dufty said after introducing the bill.

Some residents, however, are already speaking out against the cable car and streetcar idea.

“It’s going to seem like riding a commercial,” said Mary Garcia, a housekeeper who lives near Union and Mason streets and who rides a cable car to work every day. “I hope they don’t change it.”

James Qualters, a Muni cable car operator for 31 years, said the vehicles are too old for that.

“It think it’s a ridiculous idea,” he said.

Regardless, Muni officials will look into the idea, spokesman Judson True said. He noted that some cable cars already have plaques on them that list the major contributors who helped restore the antique vehicles nearly 25 years ago.

Qualters thought the idea was dumb at the time, but said he thinks Heinicke’s new idea is even dumber.

“It’s silly,” he said. “I mean, there’s just such a thing as being too money-grubbing.”

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