Metro’s board, eager for new sources of revenue, voted Thursday to scrap a 20-year-old policy against alcohol ads in the transit system, a first step toward possibly allowing beer and liquor signs in trains, buses and stations.
At the same meeting, board members approved a permanent ban on issue-oriented advertising in the system. That ban was first imposed in May, on a temporary basis, after a controversial pro-Israel group sought to buy space for ads featuring a cartoon of Muhammad, days after the drawing was linked to deadly violence in Texas.
Coping with stagnant fare revenue, declining rail ridership, rising expenses and no significant increase in funding from Washington-area jurisdictions, the transit agency needs money to balance its budget. A Metro staff report this month said alcohol ads “could potentially generate $5 million” over the next several years.
But such ads won’t be appearing soon. Because a gubernatorial executive order in Maryland prohibits alcohol ads on public transit in that state, Metro has to figure out how to permit the ads on its trains and buses yet limit them to the District and Virginia, board member Michael Goldman said.
Goldman, who represents Maryland on the board, was one of seven members who voted to allow alcohol ads. The only dissenting vote came from one of the federal government’s representatives, board Chairman Mortimer L. Downey, who was a Transportation Department official in the Clinton administration.
“I spent a lot of time on alcohol issues when I was at DOT,” Downey said after the meeting. “I was involved in trying to raise the drinking age and dealing with drunk-driving issues. And I just listened to what we heard today, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be associated with expanding alcohol ads on the system.’ ”
He was referring to several people who addressed the board before the vote, urging members not to reverse Metro’s policy against alcohol ads. The transit system accepted alcohol ads until 1994, then phased them out over five years.
“Our region’s 6 million residents include many children who use Metro as their school bus,” said William A. Bronrott, a former Maryland General Assembly delegate from Montgomery County who was chairman of the House special committee on drug and alcohol abuse in the late 2000s.
“Plus, the 19 million people who visit the nation’s capital annually will likely see train cars and buses wrapped like beer cans, crisscrossing our region like rolling billboards,” Bronrott said.
Diane Ribbe, chairwoman of the nonprofit group U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, which wants to curb the marketing of alcohol, told board members that such ads are a public health threat.
“”The more alcohol ads children see, we know the more likely they are to drink, to drink early and to drink more,” she said. “And they are more likely to ultimately suffer alcohol-related issues over their lifetime.”
In its report to the board, Metro’s financial staff said alcohol ads are permitted in numerous transit systems, including in New York, Miami, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Atlanta and London. But they also are banned in a lot of places, including on Fairfax Connector buses in Fairfax County.
A poll in September found that “alcohol advertising is a polarizing topic”among Metro riders, with 47 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed and 16 percent “not sure,” according to the staff report.
The six-month ban on issue-advocacy ads was imposed in May to spare Metro from litigation, and it was made permanent for the same reason.
On May 3, the controversial anti-Muslim group American Freedom Defense Initiative, or AFDI, sponsored the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., in which a $10,000 prize was awarded for the best caricature of Muhammad. Many Muslims consider such depictions to be blasphemous.
The event ended in bloodshed after two men opened fire with rifles outside the venue, near Dallas, and were shot and killed by a police officer. Later that month, when AFDI sought to display the winning cartoon in an ad on Metrobuses and in subway stations, the transit agency said no, fearing violence.
AFDI has tangled in court with Metro and other transit systems in the past, and has emerged victorious on First Amendment grounds. Rather than engage in the selective banning of issue-oriented ads, which could lead to another legal fight with the group, Metro opted to impose a blanket prohibition on all advocacy ads.