AS YOU ASKED, we have looked into possibilities for making the Metrorail system profitable and/or turning it over to the private sector. Our conclusions are:
1) A well publicized campaign for citizen donations (tax-deductible) should be launched at once. Our consultant, who has raised millions for public television, recommends halting trains between stations while celebrities make fund-raising appeals. Donors of stations, rail cars, escalators and farecard machines would be recognized on permanent plaques.
2) Metro might realize some savings by leasing rail cars instead of buying them. Private groups that now buy and lease freight cars should be encouraged to see subway cars as equally good tax shelters (assuming their brakes are fixed).
3) Selling the entire system is not feasible. Private transit companies have been disappearing even faster than rental housing, and for the same reasons -- maintenance problems soaring energy costs and crippling regulation, including local price controls.
4) The housing analogy does have a bright side. Metro could do what many landlords have done: go condominium. In other words, sell seats.
We recommend two programs. First, customize a small number of cars on each line and sell seats outright for perhaps $100,000 apiece (including plush upholstery, stereo headsets and engraved nameplates). These condocars would run on regular daily schedules and serve all Redskins home games. One condocar (80 seats) could produce profits of over $7 million, and more if Metro took back the first trusts at prevailing rates. Seat owners would pay their shares of energy costs, plus fees for maintenance of common areas such as stations and tracks. Absentee owners could rent out their seats and claim accelerated depreciation or mileage, but not both.
Condocars would appeal to upscale investors (corporate lobbyists, superlawyers dentists and media stars). For the mass market, we recommend adapting the resort industry's highly successful time-sharing approach.
For instance, a lawyer commuting between Silver Spring and Farragut Square now pays $2.40 a day in rush-hour fares, or $450 a year (with two weeks off). If fares go up 10 percent per year, she will pay about $10,525 to commute in the 1982-91 decade. Through time-sharing, she could buy 10-year rights to a Red Line seat at 8 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. each week-day, for perhaps $8,995, and stop worrying about inflating costs. The annual carrying charges would be low.
If she had to work late, she could swap her 5:15 seat for one at 6:30, using the same computerized exchange through which people now swap September weeks in Hawaii for June weeks in Spain.
From the treasury's viewpoint, the beauty of time-sharing is that each seat/hour can be sold separately and resold every 10 years. Assuming lower prices for off-peak hours and standing room, converting 200 cars produce nearly $1 billion in immediate capital for construction, minus the cost of the mass-mailing sweepstakes and other promotions.
In unveiling this program, we must emphasize that enough seats will be kept as subsidized trip-by-trip rentals to meet the needs of tourists and the working poor.
5) While staffing out these initiatives, we will keep exploring proposals for using Metro facilities at nonoperating hours. Unfortunately, so far the main interest in leasing stations between midnight and 6 a.m. has come from brokers of X-rated movies and other enterprises that this administration does not endorse.