Trying to find other sources of income beyond fares, the MBTA plans to install digital advertising displays at some of its busiest stations later this year, a move officials believe could generate $1 million annually atop conventional billboard income.
Riders who cringe at the memory of T-Radio - the mix of music and ads piped into stations and abandoned amid withering criticism in 2007 - may be relieved to learn these digital ads will be silent and selectively placed, the state’s top transportation official said.
The 55- and 70-inch monitors will be limited, at least initially, to the Harvard and Park Street subway stations and to the North Station and South Station subway, commuter rail, and Amtrak terminals. The displays will show a loop of 7.5-second ads, interspersed with “infotainment’’ and MBTA announcements, according to the T and its advertising contractor.
“T-Radio obviously did not go over well when it was proposed several years ago, but the distinction here is if a customer is truly bothered or does not wish to view the advertisement, then there won’t be that many around, and customers can easily wait for a train in peace,’’ said Richard A. Davey, the state’s transportation secretary. “That said, I think for a customer who’s waiting and has a couple of minutes, they can wander over and see what kind of advertisement’s in place.’’
Davey said the digital deal reflects the T’s commitment to finding varied sources of income, as it tries to erase a $161 million deficit for fiscal 2013 and struggles to cope with annual payments on a $5.5 billion debt load, much of which it inherited from the Legislature.
That pressure has prompted the T to propose raising fares and passes an average of 35 to 43 percent, depending on the severity of accompanying service cuts, while also slicing into discounts afforded to seniors, students, and those with disabilities. The T board is expected to vote on a plan in April, to take effect July 1.
“[We] remain focused on opportunities to find additional revenues that aren’t at the farebox, to not only help for the short term but also the long term,’’ Davey said. “This proposal in and of itself is not going to solve our budget gap for this year or for the future, but every dollar counts.’’
The T is also scouring its real estate portfolio for surplus properties, seeking bids on underused holdings such as a quarter-acre lot in West Roxbury and a depot building in Needham Center, and contemplating the sale of station naming rights.
Advertising currently generates about $12 million a year for the T through a partnership with Titan, which sells ads for MBTA stations as well as on buses and trains in exchange for a 37.5 percent cut, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
Titan, which has already installed digital transit ads in Philadelphia and Chicago, estimates that the electronic boards will provide an extra $300,000 to the T in the first year - when Titan hopes to recoup the cost of the industrial LCD screens, computers, and cooling systems - and a total of $4.9 million over six years.
That assumes the T continues with the program and approves a three-year option to keep working with Titan after its current 10-year contract expires in mid-2015.
“Digital advertising is revolutionizing our business,’’ said Scott Goldsmith, chief commercial officer and executive vice president for Titan in New York. “The yield is higher. Instead of having one, single static ad, you now have a number of adds over the course of a loop.’’
“Just to be clear,’’ he added, “these are not 30-second TV spots. They are what we call ‘static digital,’ which are limited-motion graphics.’’
The T contemplated a widespread program of smaller screens on trains and in stations in 2005 - to show full-blown, close-captioned TV commercials and newscasts - but backed off because of the complexity of outfitting the variety of makes and styles of MBTA heavy- and light-rail vehicles, Pesaturo said. Two years later, the MBTA’s three-station audio pilot program known as T-Radio was quickly abandoned amid a deluge of complaints.
Stuart Spina, a daily MBTA rider from Chelsea and member of the T Riders Union, said he thinks the T learned its lesson from that experiment. The digital ads should be encouraged, he said, given the T’s deficit and its multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance needs.
“Any creative ways to get new revenue, I’m happy to see,’’ Spina said. “And it definitely is good to hear it’s not going to be like T-Radio. You already hear enough noise on the subway.’’
Goldsmith said Titan typically programs a playlist of 50 percent ads, 40 percent “infotainment’’ (with news, sports, weather, and entertainment), and 10 percent public-service announcements.
Davey envisions systemwide and station-specific messages from the T. If the screens were already up at Harvard, he said, they might direct people to tomorrow night’s Cambridge fare-increase hearing or inform them of the coming end to weekend construction disruptions on the Red Line. The “infotainment’’ content is also adjustable.
“The sky is the limit in terms of whether it be information that informs the customer about the weather or news, or maybe something a little more lighthearted, [like] ‘Secretary Davey missed the last weeks of “The Walking Dead,’’ ’ ’’ he said.