Revenue-Hungry Metro Board to Consider Food, Other Retail Kiosks at 12 Stations

Kiosks like this could be used in stations under a plan being considered by Metro.
Kiosks like this could be used in stations under a plan being considered by Metro. (Courtesy of WMATA)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

With Metro battling budget problems and trying to minimize service cuts, it just might be that buying pink tulips or a cooked chicken at a Metrorail station turns out to be the most contentious issue of the year.

Later this month, the Metro board is scheduled to consider whether to solicit proposals for retail kiosks in a dozen Metrorail stations. Metro has never allowed retail sales in stations in its 33 years. Officials tried once before to consider food sales at kiosks, but strong board opposition killed the idea.

This time, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. thinks that tough economic times might allow Metro to broach that most taboo of topics: breaking the food barrier. There's also the convenience for riders and revenue for Metro.

Riders, never shy with opinions on this topic, seem to be split between those who fear an escalation of snack attacks on trains and buses and those who think it could ease the hassle on the rush to work and home.

Other Metro proposals -- allowing entertainment in subway stations and altering rail car cushion colors, to name a couple -- produced lots of discussion about how the changes would somehow alter the essence of Metro.

But few topics trigger more passion than food and beverages. Eating and drinking on the trains and buses are among the top complaints passengers have about each other -- and about Metro, because they say transit police don't enforce the rules.

The ban on eating and drinking would remain even if food vending was allowed. And Metro officials are making it clear that they're talking about food and beverages packaged "to discourage consumption in the system," said Nat Bottigheimer, assistant general manager for planning and joint development.

"The idea is not a sizzling kabob," he said.

Riders yesterday generally thought retail in stations was a good idea. But what happens when hungry riders buy a sandwich on the way to the train? Will that mean dirty wrappers on the seat?

Blade Metzer, 29, a lawyer who lives in Old Town Alexandria, said his three years in Boston led him to conclude that food and coffee sold at T stations make Boston much messier. A big plus for Metro is cleanliness, he said.

"I think food would just create a mess," he said yesterday outside the King Street Metro in Alexandria, one of the stations where retail is being proposed. "I feel like as soon as you're selling any sort of food, you're selling snacks. When you're selling snacks, people will take liberties eating on the train."

Then there are riders such as Aviva Scherer.

"If it's late and I don't want to cook and they have something that's packaged and pre-made, that'd be fantastic," said Scherer, 49, a political advocate who commutes between Huntington and Silver Spring.

Whether the board will sign on this time is uncertain.

In 2006, the board rejected the idea of allowing vendors to include food sales. Without the inclusion of food and beverage, Metro received only three offers, none of which met requirements, Bottigheimer said. Including packaged food and drink is "much more profitable" for retailers, he said. Transit systems in Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago have similar bans on eating and drinking but allow the sale of packaged food and beverages.

Metro doesn't have an estimate for how much money vending carts could generate. In San Francisco, which has had hot dog carts since 1987 and Peet's Coffee since last year, the transit system reaped about $600,000 from concessions last year, according to a spokesman for BART.

Spokesman Linton Johnson said BART has also grappled with maintaining its ban on eating and drinking while selling hot dogs and coffee. At one point, the board even considered licensing spillproof cups. That idea died because it cost too much.

So are people taking Peet's Coffee on the trains and drinking? Yes, he said. But the system also hired more train cleaners, and last year customer satisfaction rose about 5 percent.

Chris Zimmerman, a longtime Metro board member who represents Virginia, said he doesn't buy the argument that "if we don't sell food, we can't sell anything." But he's not ruling anything out. He supports more convenience for riders. If retail also makes some money for Metro, "that would be terrific."

The Metro stations under consideration include urban and suburban stops; each station has at least 6,000 daily entries. Some kiosks would be outside the station, on sidewalks and near the Kiss & Ride lots. Others would be in the paid areas.

The sale of tobacco and alcohol would still be prohibited.

Staff writer Mark Berman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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