Metro, struggling with declining ridership and revenue, is considering allowing retail and food concessions in the system. The agency also is looking at lifting its ban on alcohol-related advertising as another revenue generator.
What’s not clear is whether it makes sense to allow food and drinks to be sold in a subway system where eating and drinking are prohibited by law.
Some Metro board members sounded less than enthusiastic about the idea, which is scheduled for discussion at a finance committee meeting Thursday. Skeptics said selling food in stations will invite people to eat on trains and platforms.
“I’m not too keen on it at all,” said board member Tom Bulger. “And it’s going to cost a lot of money to pick up all the crap.”
The ban on food is a distinctive Metro policy intended to keep the interiors of cars and stations clean. Some welcome the policy, while others see it as overkill. It has occasionally led to controversy, such as when Metro Transit Police arrested and handcuffed a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry. But it also has made Metro a less welcoming home for the likes of Pizza Rat, a denizen of New York’s subway system whose takeout meal transformed the creature into a YouTube celebrity.
Metro staff members’ proposal would lift the ban on selling food and beverages while upholding the ban on consuming them inside the system. In a memo outlining the proposal, staff recommended licensing newsstands, small retail outlets and vending machines. Merchants could sell packaged food and beverages and items such as over-the-counter medicines or ear buds.
A previous effort to expand commercial ventures in 2004 came up short. The agency nailed down an agreement allowing the installation of ATMs that generate $1.2 million a year in revenue, but an effort to attract bidders for concessions in 2006 found no takers, owing to the prohibition on the sale of food and beverages, according to board documents.
Metro staff members, who also are searching for ways to make up for ad revenue that was lost when the transit agency put the kibosh on issue-oriented advertising, said allowing alcohol-themed ads could generate $5 million a year.
They noted that transit systems in New York, Miami, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Atlanta and London all accept alcohol advertising. Policies in the Washington area vary: The D.C. Department of Transportation accepts advertising (such as on bus shelters), Maryland does not accept alcohol ads in public transit areas, and rules in Virginia vary, including a ban on alcohol ads on Fairfax Connector buses.
Overall, advertising makes up about 40 percent of the Metro’s non-fare revenue, or about $20 million a year, according to board documents.
The agency also said it wants to expand digital advertising capability, increase the number of places that ads can be displayed, look into wrapping trains with ads in a way similar to how ads wrap buses and allow wider use of a strategy that allows a single advertiser to plaster an entire station with its message. All together, the new ad strategies could raise an additional $5 million to $9 million annually.
That is money that could help defray the loss of revenue from a temporary ban on ads advocating views involving religion, politics or other causes. Metro imposed the ban in May after an anti-Islamic group wanted to put up cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Metro staff members are urging that the ban be made permanent. The ban is supported by the public, as reflected in surveys, according to staff, and opening the way to such ads again could expose the agency to claims of discrimination or create security issues by inciting opponents. But the ban also has cost the agency about $1.6 million in lost revenue.
Sherri Ly, a Metro spokeswomman, said the agency would not discuss the proposals further until Thursday’s committee meeting.
Board members and riders seemed more open to the idea of allowing ads for alcohol than allowing food and drink in the system. Twitter users who weighed in mostly gave the idea a thumbs down, too.
“I think that they should consider every option for raising money to fix the system,” said Chris Barnes, a founder of the WMATA Riders’ Union. “Having said that, selling food on a property where the consumption of food is still illegal is a bad idea. It’s not just a rule. It’s a law. So you could still be arrested and fined.”
That’s what happened to “french fry girl.” In 2000, then-12-year-old Ansche Hedgepeth was arrested and handcuffed for eating a single fry. The strict no-eating policy drew attention again in 2006, when an employee with the Environmental Protection Agency was arrested for eating a PayDay candy bar.
“It sounds like it’s a nice concept, but it’s a bad idea,” said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, who serves on the Metro board. He said that he has already heard from some riders who oppose any relaxing of a ban that they believe helps keep rodents at bay.
“Enough people violate the rules as they exist already,” Euille said.