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Cash-Strapped Metro Rolls Out Ad-Wrapped Trains
Some Decry 'Visual Spam,' Others Welcome Revenue

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Like giant green billboards rolling down train tracks, Metro's first rail cars wrapped completely in an advertisement debuted on the Orange Line yesterday in an effort the transit agency hopes will bring much-needed revenue.

The "McDonald's train" -- a great, big ad for the fast-food restaurant chain's new fruit salad -- is only the beginning of a major advertising push by the cash-strapped and rapidly aging transportation system. For the 29 years since Metrorail began operating, its trains have never ventured past the predictable silver and brown shells. Now, Metro officials say, the only limit to their exterior design is a marketer's imagination.

The new look started yesterday in New Carrollton with a spinach green and radish red background to McDonald's bright golden arches on the sliding doors. The ad campaign is scheduled to last three months, but Metro officials are hoping other deep-pocketed corporations will follow.

Coming soon will be television screens inside trains and buses that will broadcast news, sports scores and, of course, commercials. Tunnel ads -- a series of panel drawings that will appear to move like so many flip cards as the train passes -- could be in place as early as the fall. ATMs and banner ads will debut in stations soon.

Owners of local McDonald's restaurants paid $54,000 to put the ad and the chain's motto, "I'm Lovin' It," on the trains. Appearing beneath the windows are the phrases "New Fruit & Walnut Salad" and "get a fruit buzz."

Metro generates about $29 million annually through advertising on buses and trains. But with a budget of more than $1 billion, transit officials are hoping for more.

To some riders, the ad was an ironic reminder of a Metro rule that is vigorously enforced: It is illegal to eat on the train.

"They are taunting you," said Kevin Fry, president of the District-based anti-commercialization group Scenic America. "Not only can you not eat your McDonald's fruit salad on the Metro system, but now you can't even enjoy the system itself."

Fry called the new ads "visual spam on wheels."

"It really is sad to see one of the most beautiful transportation systems wrap its trains in garish advertising," said Fry, who added that he has been using Metrorail since it began in 1976.

But Kevin Moore, who heads a passenger advocacy group called MetroRiders.org, countered that "it's absolutely appropriate that Metro explores and takes advantage of other sources of revenue."

"When Metro does something like this and they are bringing in more money, then I have no problem with it," Moore added, "as long as it keeps reliability up and fares down."

Metro Board Chairman T. Dana Kauffman said he isn't crazy about turning Metro trains into something akin to an ad-laden NASCAR racecar. But budget shortfalls are prompting Metro to find nontraditional ways to raise revenue.

The money from the McDonald's ad will cover part of the cost to upgrade the monitors that tell passengers waiting on station platforms when the trains will arrive. Sensors will be added so that the operations center is alerted when those monitors break down.

Other advertising revenue will be used to improve service, clean trains and replace old equipment.

Metro raised fares in each of the past two years, with the last increase making up a $23.4 million budget shortfall. This year, local jurisdictions have been asked to cover an 8 percent increase in the agency's proposed budget, which topped $1 billion for the first time, Metro officials said.

Buses will not be spared from the billboard material. Most already have a panel ad on the side. And last year, buses wrapped in advertising began with an ad for the German Embassy.

"We are at a time now we have our limitations on our funding, and we are looking at creative ways to bring in revenue into the system," said Leona Agouridis, Metro's assistant general manager for communications.

Besides, she added, several passengers riding on the new McDonald's train told her yesterday morning that seeing a giant fruit salad ad on the Orange Line "was really cool."

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