A Metro board committee voted Thursday to allow the agency to begin charging for weekend and early-morning parking as part of several six-month pilot programs aimed at increasing revenue for the cash-strapped agency.
Under the proposal, which is expected to be approved by the full board later this month, Metro would begin charging people exiting parking lots at 7:30 a.m. each weekday. That is two hours earlier than when Metro’s parking staff currently closes the exit gates and begins collecting daily fees from departing drivers.
Metro officials hope the expanded window will help the agency profit from people who park overnight at stations — a practice that is prohibited at most stations but routinely carried out.
Nina Albert, Metro’s director of real estate and station planning, estimated that on average, 2,000 people park overnight at stations. Often, those people are able to leave the station without paying because they depart before 9:30 a.m. Metro has no entry fare gates and no way to determine whether cars that are exiting have been inside the garage for a couple of minutes or a couple of days.
Since the agency does not have the staff or infrastructure to enforce the overnight ban, she said, it might as well capitalize on the practice. If Metro charged people who park overnight and leave the station in the early-morning hours, they could make $825,000 a year.
Metro also will pursue a pilot program to charge people who park at station garages and lots on weekends, but those fees will be small, Albert said, at least at the beginning.
She said the weekend fees may start out as low as 25 cents to $1 for a day of parking. The purpose of the pilot is not to make money, she said, but to gather data on how many people use the parking facilities on weekends and who those people are. (Because SmarTrip cards can be used to collect parking fees, Metro has a sense of how many people parking are local vs. out-of-towners.)
“We are not talking necessarily . . . about charging the full fare. We can charge a much lower fare, just to start collecting the data,” Albert said. “During the pilot, we’re really trying to understand who’s parking. . . . It’s not hardcore revenue generation.”
The real estate committee approved all six of the parking proposals laid out by staff, which also include expanding the number of stations that charge higher fees for nonriders, decreasing weekday parking fees at under-subscribed stations, modifying evening parking hours and charging higher parking rates for special events.
They also voted to allow food and beverages to be sold on Metro parking properties on weekends — and potentially holidays, pending a proposed amendment that will go to the full Metro board — to make it possible to rent out space for farmers markets, auto shows, marathons and other events.
Together, those proposals are estimated to potentially raise $8 million a year in new revenue, Albert said.
Board member Malcolm Augustine said he was pleased with the parking proposals and said that Metro must be aggressive in seeking new sources of cash. But he warned that such measures could affect ridership.
“I am a little concerned about the impact on ridership on the weekend, where we already have really poor utilization of the rail system itself,” he said.
Board members were also generally positive about continuing discussions over the sale of naming rights to certain stations but agreed they needed more information from Metro Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox before they allow any definitive policy changes.
Still, multiple board members argued that there is an urgent need to explore all options to save Metro from financial distress. The agency is facing a potential significant cash shortfall for the 2019 fiscal year operating budget — and as Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld presses regional leaders to establish a dedicated fund for long-term capital needs, he has also promised to look under every rock for new revenue to help plug short-term budget holes.
A similar deficit this year forced Metro to resort to service cuts and fare increases to balance the budget. Metro board members say they want to avoid a repeat of that at all costs.
“We’re scraping the barrel,” said board member Tom Bulger. “Critics can call us whatever they want, but we need revenue for next year’s budget.”
Board member Michael Goldman encouraged the Customer Service Committee to broaden the scope of the conversation to include the names of rail service lines, perhaps with the potential for bringing in revenue from a Silver Line “Dulles Express.”
Others expressed concerns about how far the proposal could go. After the meeting, Jack Evans, chairman of the board, imagined a scenario in which The Trump Organization offered Metro $10 million to rename Federal Triangle as “The Trump hotel Metro stop.”
“Now that would be an outcry!” he said, laughing.
The board meeting turned contentious near its end, as some members engaged in a heated exchange over a proposed restructuring of the board’s committees — a debate that resulted in sharp words and accusations of underhandedness and 11th-hour foot-dragging.
Goldman and fellow board member Keturah D. Harley — both voting members from Maryland — said they could not support the current proposal to overhaul the agency’s governing panel and signified their intention to veto the restructuring plan unless substantial changes are made.
Goldman believes the proposed changes give too much power to nonvoting members of the Metro board, in defiance of what he believes is the spirit of Metro’s governing compact. Harley, meanwhile, opposed the restructuring on the grounds that the jurisdictions haven’t been given sufficient input on the changes.
Metro’s board consists of eight voting members and eight alternate members who represent the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government.
A veto would potentially thwart a months-long effort to streamline the agency’s governance — and could sink the proposal altogether.
D.C. leaders, however, sought to quell debate over the restructuring at least until a full board vote in two weeks.
The proposed changes would shrink the number of board subcommittees from seven to four; potentially lengthen the terms of the current chair and vice chair by realigning the election calendar; and potentially allot increased responsibility to nonvoting members by allowing them to serve on an executive committee. It would also eliminate the position of second vice chair. Goldman stands to lose his post as chairman of the panel’s finance committee if accompanying officer assignments are approved.
The issue will get a final hearing in two weeks, when the full board of directors is scheduled to meet for the last time before an August recess.