When Metro extended subway service to 1 a.m. on weekends, officials promised an advertising blitz that would attract riders and remind Washington that Metro trains roll day and night.
But shortly after the late service began Nov. 5, Metro had spent all $75,000 set aside to promote the new service through brochures and signs. The advertising ground to a halt. Ridership on those night-owl trains is inconsistent. "We're essentially tapped out on the money side," Metro General Manager Richard A. White said. "We do not have any more resources to continue marketing the program."
A key advocate of the late trains called for a "very dramatic" change in the way Metro sells itself to the public. "The case couldn't be clearer," said Jim Graham, a member of the D.C. Council and Metro board of directors. "The situation with extended hours is one small example. If we want people to change their behavior, if we want people to get out of their cars and use mass transit, then we have to market ourselves the way any business would."
To promote ridership systemwide, White is asking Metro directors to double the transit authority's annual marketing budget from $1 million to $2 million in the next fiscal year. Board members are expected to take up the issue when they meet next week to start negotiations over next year's budget.
But at least one Metro director is scoffing at the proposal. "The finest marketing tool available is to run a clean, safe, reliable system at affordable fares," said Cleatus E. Barnett, Montgomery County's representative on the board. "You do that and you'll be a success."
When it comes to late-night ridership, that remains to be seen. The number of passengers riding trains between midnight and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights has ranged from a high of 5,438 the weekend of Nov. 19 to a low of 2,513 the weekend of Nov. 26.
When they launched the service, transit officials projected 4,600 people would ride the late trains each weekend from midnight to 1 a.m. The late night service is being run as an eight-month experiment to measure demand. If officials deem it a success, they may extend service to 2 a.m.
Barnett said any increase in Metro's advertising budget will mean one of two things: higher subsidies from local taxpayers or higher fares charged to passengers.
"A commitment of no increase in fares is far more useful to the ridership than the Beach Boys singing 'I Get Around' on television," said Barnett, referring to Metro's last splashy commercial campaign, which featured Beach Boys imitators in ads on radio and television in the late 1980s. "Worthless, totally worthless," is how Barnett characterized that campaign. "It brought not a single additional rider."
But the ads caused a spike in ridership and are still remembered by residents, said Leona Agouridis, Metro's assistant general manager for communications.
She said Metro needs to direct more money to marketing because advertising costs in this region are exploding. "The good economy and all the Internet companies has really created a demand for advertising space," Agouridis said. "The cost of media is skyrocketing."
Metro spends less than on advertising than many of the country's major transit systems. The Atlanta system has a $3.1 million annual budget, with about $500,000 set aside for a special campaign designed to boost its image, spokesman Bobby Harper said. In San Francisco, officials are spending $2.6 million on marketing. Boston's transit system spends $2.7 million.