MTA Looks to Sell Ads in Subway Tunnels

The cash-strapped MTA is exploring new ways to boost annual ad revenue, including selling wall space in the tunnels between subway stations.

The NY-NJ PATH train, Boston's T system and other subways have marketed surfaces between stations to commercial concerns. But this would be a first for the MTA in New York.

Spokesman Aaron Donovan said the authority has already solicited bids from companies to manage the new account.

"Anywhere there’s a dark tunnel, you could do it," he said.

It's part of the authority's push to bring in more money from advertising after two flat years of sales. The MTA earned $109 million during the recession years of 2009 and 2010, down from a high of $118 million in 2008. But the MTA is projecting a comeback in 2011 with sales of $120 million.

The tunnel ads would show a string of varied images that, when viewed from a passing train, would move like a flip book. A similar effect is visible in a subway artwork called Masstransiscope between the Manhattan Bridge and the DeKalb Avenue station in Brooklyn. As the D train glides by an unused station at Myrtle Avenue, painted images flash behind vertical slits and appear to be animated.

Donovan said most ideas for non-traditional ad placement come from advertisers themselves. In recent years, the MTA has permitted video on the outside of buses and ads that wrap entire train cars, like the 6 train that became a long rolling ad for Target last fall, when the company opened a store on 116th Street in Harlem.

Then there is a program called "station domination," in which a single company plasters ads on multiple surfaces -- columns, stairwells, turnstiles -- throughout a subway station. Ads at Union Square Station have even been projected onto floors and walls. And now the MTA website displays ads for free credit checks and the Crate & Barrel wedding registry.

Gene Russianoff of The Straphangers Campaign said he's of two minds about the spread of ads not only in the subway and on buses but also on billboards outside stations and the exterior of commuter trains. (The New York City Department of Transportation gets the money from ads on bus shelters.)

"My view is informed by the very tough times we’re in and the pressure the MTA is under to make money," Russainoff said.

But he said he draws the line at selling naming rights to stations like the agreement by Barclays Bank to pay the MTA $200,000 over 20 years to puts its name on the Atlantic Avenue station in Downtown Brooklyn.

"That's making a public space private and subordinating the public’s right to know where it’s going," Russianoff said.

Still, the MTA faces pressure to cut costs and pump up sources of non-tax revenue.

The authority has an agreement with CBS Outdoor, a media-buying company, for the company to sell at least $580 million in ads on the subway from 2006 to 2016 and $346.5 million in ads on Metro-North and Long Island Railroad from 2010 to 2016. The MTA is also in the midst of a 10-year contract with Van Wagner, another media-buying firm, to sell at least $58 million in billboard ads on transit authority property. In December, ad space became available on five pages of the website. Donovan said that initiative has earned $10,000 over three months.

What is the most lucrative spot for ads in the region's transit system? That would be the Times Square Shuttle with its packed cars and constant turnover of passengers. If an advertiser has an idea for a new kind of ad, like a train wrap or video, it is likely to be tried out on the shuttle.