Metro directors grudgingly approved a request by transit officials yesterday to lease space in a Silver Spring building, after questioning why the agency is renting when it owns an underutilized warehouse in Landover.
"We have a vast amount of space at Pennsy Drive," Metro board member Robert Smith said yesterday to Chief Executive Richard A. White during a meeting of the board. "Is there a reason that we need to [be in Silver Spring] instead of moving to a space that we own?"
Smith was referring to the Carmen E. Turner Maintenance and Training Center, a 680,000-square-foot building with 16 acres under one roof, which Metro purchased in 2000 to house repair shops and training labs for transit workers.
Formerly the warehouse for the Hechinger home improvement chain, the building -- more than twice as large as Reagan National Airport's main terminal -- is the largest Metro-owned facility.
Instead of using some of that space, Metro managers told the board yesterday that they want to spend $225,000 a year to rent 8,600 square feet of commercial space on Colesville Road in Silver Spring to accommodate a new company, which the transit agency will hire to provide MetroAccess service Jan. 1.
Metro rents three floors in the building at an annual cost of about $775,000. That space is occupied by the current MetroAccess contractor, LogistiCare Inc., as well as Metro's customer complaint and information telephone service.
Metro managers said it was important to locate the new MetroAccess provider in the same building as the departing provider to ensure continuity when the service changes hands. Although LogistiCare will move out of the Silver Spring building by March, Metro will have to pay rent for its space through December 2006, transit officials said.
Transit officials considered using the Turner Center but dropped the idea after learning that it would cost $1 million to switch telephone service from the Silver Spring facility, said Pamela Wilkins, who is overseeing the MetroAccess program.
Gladys Mack, who represents the District on the Metro board, said that if a fourth floor were leased at the Silver Spring building, Metro would be spending $1 million a year in rent. "I'm still very, very uneasy about this . . . " she said. "Everyone who's been to Pennsy Drive has been impressed with the enormous size of that facility. Maybe this could be one of the planning components and we could find out how to save ourselves costs."
But White said that Metro did not know how much space is available at the Turner Center because no one at the agency has been tracking how the facility is used.
Washington Post reporters who made several visits to the Turner Center this year found that classrooms were deserted, their benches vacant and computers dark. Office after office was empty. Behind the locked door of a carpeted room marked "library," the only contents were a few sagging cardboard boxes.
The agency has spent almost $40 million on the property and plans to spend millions more to finish renovations. Twenty-five percent of the facility remains untouched warehouse space, agency officials said.
White told Metro directors that the agency intends to hire a "space planner" to keep track of its needs and physical resources. William Scott, deputy general manager for workforce development, said the job will pay up to the "mid-$80,000s."
White said that Metro had to acquire space for the new MetroAccess contractor by late next month.
"I guess we're up against a time crunch," Mack said, moments before voting to approve the lease.
Charles Deegan, who represents Prince George's County on the Metro board, abstained from voting. "It's unconscionable to spend $23 a foot on leased space when Pennsy Drive is free," he said.