Members of the Gateway Corridor Commission have said they will seriously consider selling the naming rights to future stations on the transit corridor that will eventually connect St. Paul to western Wisconsin.

While acknowledging that "it's probably a little early to be thinking about that," commission chair Lisa Weik said she would be open to establishing public-private partnerships to help pay for the long-awaited Gateway Corridor project, which is expected to be finished in 2022.

"I think we should encourage public-private partnerships, in as many areas as we can, not just transit projects," Weik said. "I think that's a good thing, as a local elected official. We don't move forward with these projects, unless we have the support of the local business community."

Any deals would likely be at least five years away, Weik said.

Similar agreements have been reached in such cities as New York City, Tampa, Fla., and Cleveland, where transit agencies have pulled in millions of dollars by selling the naming rights to individual stations and rail and bus lines.

"I assume it's a win-win. It generates income for the line and it provides advertising or marketing for the company or companies that choose to name it," said Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, another Gateway commissioner.

Gateway vice chairman Rafael Ortega said his fellow commissioners haven't ruled out selling the naming rights to transit stations, although he acknowledged that it "is not on top of my list as an issue."

"I'm not against it. I just would like to know specifically what kind of criteria we're talking about and what kind of revenue it would bring," said Ortega, who also serves on the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority. "And also, what precedent does this set? We have to work with a lot of partners."

The commission is the body charged with mapping out the future of mass transit in the east metro, including the Gateway project, which would add light-rail or rapid bus service along Interstate 94 from downtown St. Paul to Eau Claire, Wis. Gateway officials will hold an open house Thursday at Globe University in Woodbury to discuss the project's progress.

Weik, a Washington County commissioner, said the commission has closely monitored Cleveland's $200 million HealthLine BRT (bus rapid transit) system, which debuted in 2008 and will pump $6.25 million over 25 years into the city's coffers through a naming rights deal with the Cleveland Clinic and University hospitals. The system is being held up nationally as a model of mass transit of the future.

Financially strapped cities stand to gain by working with private companies willing to pay handsomely to affix their corporate logos to "public domains and assets," said David Hopkins, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City sold the naming rights to the subway stop next to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, one of the borough's oldest and busiest, for $4 million over 20 years.

Philadelphia's transit authority reached a five-year, $5 million deal with AT&T in 2010 to rename one of its busiest stations.

Closer to home, Hennepin County reached an agreement with the Minnesota Twins and United Properties last fall that called for the Twins and the Bloomington-based developer to pay $1.95 million for the right to name the planned light-rail transit hub next to Target Field.

Critics are wary

The trend has its critics.

Some experts say the renaming of transit stations could be confusing for commuters. Others are leery of the commercialization of public facilities and spaces.

"Sometimes the brand names create the idea that there's a commercial relationship that exists with the name and the name presence," Hopkins said. "Public amenities sometimes signal a connection to the community and the heritage of the community, so sometimes there's more of a sensitivity to changing the name."

The Met Council, which must sign off on the Gateway project, has established "identity and branding" guidelines: "The name must continue to have a clear link to a nearby landmark or regionally recognizable destination."

"If a station name is sold, the sale should be for a period of at least 20 years and the price should be based on market exposure," the guidelines read.

Weik says she has been approached by 3M Co. representatives about a possible deal to name the proposed "walk-up" station outside the manufacturing giant's headquarters in Maplewood.

"Personally, I hear all the time that citizens want more private investment with local government and state government because of the fallout of the recession. It will benefit commerce and keep property taxes affordable and stable," Weik said.