Metro officials believe that rail ridership may finally be creeping back up, with more people taking Metro during five days last month than during any other weekdays this year.
Now, staff members are focusing their attention on how to translate those modest ridership gains into more money.
In documents released Monday morning, Metro staff laid out a slew of options on how to increase revenue to help balance the agency’s operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
Their ideas: Win back riders with a big marketing campaign on increased reliability. Increase the parking fees at some train stations, depending on the location of the station and the time or day of the week. And consider selling the naming rights to some stations — despite ongoing concerns about the risks of adding commercial brand names to historic Metro stops.
But it’s all part of the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach espoused by Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who has said in recent months that he believes the agency is trying to do everything it can to maximize annual revenue for the operating budget and limit the need to ask for additional subsidies from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
The wide-ranging proposals are part of Wiedefeld’s sell to the region as he continues to advocate for local lawmakers to establish a tax or dedicated revenue source to help fund Metro’s long-term capital needs. Republican legislators especially have been antsy to get assurances from Wiedefeld that he is doing his part by taking steps to wring out every possible dollar for Metro’s budget.
And some of those steps might not be popular with riders.
Selling station naming rights, for example, has often been viewed as a shortsighted solution for the transit agency. The issue was bandied in July 2012, when the majority of Metro riders in a survey said they didn’t want commercial entities attached to the historic names of the stations. At that time, the Metro board decided to “continue current practice of not selling commercial naming rights.”
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
“Fully leveraging our real estate assets would include examining the marketplace to determine the potential revenue for commercial station naming, which has generated millions of dollars in non-fare revenue for other transit properties,” wrote Lynn Bowersox, Metro’s director of customer service, communications and marketing in her memo to the board.
Bowersox cited two lucrative examples at other transit agencies: New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority was paid $4 million for a 20-year deal to rename Atlantic Avenue Station as Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center Station. And the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia earned a collective $9 million when it agreed to rename Pattison Station as AT&T Station, and to rename Market East Station as Jefferson Station, both for five-year terms.
“WMATA staff believes there may be potential station naming opportunities for WMATA at Gallery Place, Navy Yard-Ballpark, Metro Center and L’Enfant Plaza stations due to location, proximity to venues and ridership density,” Bowersox wrote.
Other ideas for scrounging up cash were raised in the documents Metro released Monday.
Agency officials are seeking approval from the board to experiment with new parking fees at stations that could help increase revenue on nights and weekends, shift drivers to station garages that have more space, and expand the number of stations where people are charged more money if they do not use the trains or buses.
“While Metro’s parking portfolio generates $45 million in annual revenue, the asset could generate more without significantly impacting Metro transit riders by increasing utilization of vacant parking spaces during the week and on weekends,” wrote Belinda Barrett of Metro’s parking office.
Barrett cited the fact that 80 percent of parking spots stay vacant during the entire weekend.
In some cases, people who use the parking garages may actually see their daily fees go down — if the Metro board approves a pilot program. Agency staff members are trying to shift some commuters from high-demand stations that consistently max out on parking, to adjacent garages where spots are seldom oversubscribed. To do that, the parking staff wants the board’s permission to lower fees at those less popular stations.
But Metro officials also appear cautiously optimistic that they will see revenue increase modestly simply from regular ridership on the trains and buses. June turned out to be a heartening month for the agency: June 27, a Tuesday, turned out to be the highest ridership weekday so far this year, with 699,804 rides taken on the system.
Four other days in June rounded out the list of the five highest-ridership weekdays of the year: June 13 and 14, and June 28 and 29.
And Monday, June 26, has the highest ridership of any Monday so far this year, with 657,320 rides taken that day.
Still, it’s too early to say whether those gains are simply a blip, or if they’re the beginning stages of a slow turnaround after years of ridership losses.