The Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), the organization set up by voters to come up with a monorail plan, is talking with advertisers and major news networks about having billboards, vinyl adhesive signs, commercials, and 24-hour news broadcasts inside monorail trains and stations. Sound scary? Get over it. Advertising, like it or not, is a great way to generate a ton of cash for the expensive Seattle monorail project.
According to the ETC's rough draft of the Ballard to Downtown to West Seattle route--or "Green Line," as it's now called--monorail station and train advertising could generate up to $500,000 per station in revenue. (The ETC won't comment specifically on potential advertisers.) So if 26 stations were built, as the rough draft outlines, that would be about $13 million in annual ad revenues. "Depending on the volume of station traffic, that number could go even higher," says Patrick Pharris, vice president of Promethean Partners, the advertising company working with the Las Vegas monorail and a potential player in the Seattle monorail project. (In Vegas, where a four-mile-long monorail with eight stations is currently under construction, Pharris estimates that over $7 million in ad dollars will be generated.)
Think about it. If the Seattle monorail could generate over $13 million a year in advertising, that would cover more than half of the monorail's $18-$25 million yearly operating and maintenance costs! The more money generated from ad revenues, the less Seattle has to pay in taxes and fare money. Oh wait, wait... this is Seattle. We hate advertising. Just look around.
How many billboards or "building wraps" do you see in Seattle? Not many. Compared to San Francisco or New York, we live in an ad-protected bubble. It's deliberate. Chapter 23.55 of the Seattle Municipal Code, for example, is very strict about billboards and other outdoor advertising in public space. In fact, according to the code, no more billboards can be built in Seattle, period. "We're not accepting any applications," says the city's Department of Construction and Land Use manager, Richard Alford. Seattle heavily regulates advertising because the public relishes the views of Mount Rainier and the water. That's why in 1992 the Seattle City Council passed the billboard ordinance--to "reduce the visual blight of the signs," says Alford. Potential monorail and station advertising will be challenging those values. That makes ad companies nervous.
"We just want to see what Seattle voters do before we comment about specifics," says Jeff Kimmel, spokesperson for Los Angeles-based consulting firm TransMax. (TransMax, one of the main players the ETC is talking to, is a kind of middleman between transit systems and companies that want to advertise.) Kimmel's reluctance to talk specifics, also echoed by Pharris, is understandable. Companies like TransMax fear that giving specifics, or even talking about advertising, will scare Seattleites and threaten the ETC project. But screw that--the more information we have, the better. If Seattle truly wants to build the monorail and have it run all around town, those touchy "advertising and view" values need to be questioned.