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Next stop -- Tim Hortons Oakville? Metrolinx on track to sell off naming rights to GO stations

Metrolinx has estimated that letting companies put their names on train stations could generate up to $500,000 per station per year.
March 1, 20222
Ben Spurr

Imagine hopping a train from Coca-Cola Exhibition to Tim Hortons Oakville. Or hitching a ride from Scotiabank Whitby to Shoppers Drug Mart Clarkson.

The map of the GO Transit network could soon look a little different, as Metrolinx moves ahead with plans to sell the naming rights for stops on the regional rail service.

In February, the agency issued a request for expressions of interest for a “station naming rights opportunity” at four rail stops -- Whitby, Exhibition, Clarkson and Oakville.

The organization says it chose the four stations based on a combination of high ridership and strategic location, but the solicitation, which was posted to Metrolinx’s procurement website on Feb. 15, says the agency “will consider proposals for other stations at the request of interested parties.”

Metrolinx, which is the Ontario Crown corporation that oversees GO and the UP Express, first proposed selling the rights to name stations in 2019. In a statement attributed to a Metrolinx spokesperson, the agency said the most recent posting is a continuation of that original effort and “part of a strategy to enhance transit and the customer experience by generating new forms of non-fare revenue.”

The organization has previously estimated that letting companies put their names on train stations could generate up to $500,000 per station per year. Although it has yet to announce any naming deals, it says there has been ample interest from potential sponsors.

“We are particularly encouraged by these new revenue opportunities as we start to recover from the effects of the pandemic on our ridership,” it said.

The agency believes riders won’t be confused by any changes to station names because the branded stops would retain their current titles, just with the sponsor’s name added in front.

No specific types of companies -- liquor or cannabis brands for instance -- would be prohibited from making offers for naming rights, but it would be up to Metrolinx whether to negotiate a deal.

A request for information that Metrolinx posted in 2019 listed a fifth station, Pickering, that isn’t included in the new solicitation. The 2019 request closed in October 2021. Metrolinx wouldn’t say why Pickering has been left out of the new request.

When the Star asked Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney for comment on the station rights issue Friday, her spokesperson sent a statement nearly identical to the one provided by Metrolinx, an ostensibly arm’s-length agency of the province, with the words “provincial government” exchanged for “Metrolinx.”

Mulroney has previously shown support for the naming rights plan, saying in 2019 that it aligned with the Ontario PC government’s vision of ensuring the province is “open for business.”

On Friday, Green Party Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner criticized the idea of selling the naming rights for publicly funded transit stops, arguing that “governments shouldn’t be in the business of supporting corporate interests like this.”

“If the Ford government wants to raise funds, they should cancel the $10 billion climate disaster Highway 413 and the $1 billion licence sticker election gimmick and invest those funds towards affordable and accessible transit instead,” he said.

Since Metrolinx first proposed selling station rights, COVID-19 has caused a dramatic drop in ridership on transit networks all over the world. Ridership on GO is now at about 24 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, while volumes on the UP Express are at 30 per cent. Fewer people riding could theoretically make the naming rights for stations less attractive to potential sponsors.

However, before the Omicron wave hit last year ridership had rebounded to about 50 per cent of normal, and Metrolinx is confident ridership will return to normal over the next one to two years.

The organization expects opportunities for private sector partnerships to ramp up as it pursues strategies like transit-oriented development, in which companies agree to build transit infrastructure in exchange for benefits like development rights near the lines.

The request for expressions of interest for naming rights closes at the end of 2022.