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L.L. Bean, MBTA wrap up free ride deal

Ad campaign aids transit revenue

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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The MBTA’s budget for the coming year relies partly on an anticipated boost in advertising income to stave off a fare increase for riders. But a new ad campaign rolling out next week from L.L. Bean will do that one better, providing not just cash for the T, but free trips for thousands of passengers.

The apparel and outdoor gear maker is bringing back free shipping for all US and Canadian orders, starting today. To promote it, the company is wrapping 10 MBTA buses to resemble mail-order packages and offering free rides to everyone who gets on those buses next week, from Monday through Saturday.

The T has twice offered free subway rides as a corporate promotion — once for Microsoft, another time for ING — but only for three-hour periods. The L.L. Bean campaign is the longest and the first to pick up the tab for bus riders. The company from Freeport, Maine, is paying $216,000 to the MBTA, roughly double what the 10 buses would collect in fares in a typical week.

The promotion comes as the T is trying to increase its advertising revenue by more than one-third, to $20 million annually. The transit authority’s plans include selling ads for the first time on MBTA.com and on the CharlieCard, as well as a more ambitious billboard campaign at stations and on subways, trolleys, and buses.

“We have a number of items that . . . we think can provide us some significant additional nonfare revenue,’’ said MBTA general manager Richard A. Davey, who has encouraged the T’s finance, real estate, and marketing teams to devise new ways to balance the T’s budget without service cuts or fare increases.

Davey’s team is trying to close a projected deficit of about $130 million on a budget of more than $1.6 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The T’s board of directors is scheduled to vote on the final 2012 budget April 6.

The working plan includes a mix of new revenue and cost-cutting, but relies most heavily on a one-time proposal to lease the North Station parking garage and sell long-term revenue from all other garages to investors, in exchange for an upfront sum that could exceed $300 million.

The Bean campaign, though, was just good luck, not a result of T prospecting. The Maine outfitter and its Texas ad agency, GSD&M, came calling after deciding that bus wraps and free rides would be a good way to promote free shipping.

“Boston is a very big market for us,’’ said Laurie Brooks, L.L. Bean spokeswoman. . “We’re going to be running a national TV ad, with 15-second and 30-second spots, but we’re not doing anything fun like this [elsewhere].’’

The MBTA’s advertising rate book includes a long list of packages and options, from interior bus cards to elevator wraps, but the T had to break out the calculators when Bean said it wanted to provide free rides.

The T’s busiest bus routes carry about 16,000 riders on a typical weekday, with 10 or so vehicles operating on each route. That’s 1,600 passengers per bus, but roughly half have unlimited monthly passes; the other half pay $1.25 or $1.50 per trip, depending on whether they use a CharlieCard. A busy bus might generate $1,200 a day in fares.

Bean first proposed offering the free rides from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the T suggested a fee of $2,000 per bus per day. The company came back to ask about covering all hours, and the two sides agreed on a $3,000 figure, or $180,000 total for a 10-bus, six-day promotion.

Bean is paying another $36,000 to keep the exterior wraps on the buses for four weeks, making them roaming billboards that will be seen by motorists and pedestrians across much of Boston, Cambridge, and beyond.

The 10 package-wrapped buses will travel on the 1, 9, 47, 57, 66, CT1, CT2, and CT3 routes.

During the free-ride promotion, the farebox inside will also be covered to resemble an L.L. Bean parcel.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.