Commuters exit Metro trains in the Federal Triangle station in Washington. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Metro’s ability to offer virtual tours of its stations could cost more than half a million dollars when the system is set up for the entire system, according to an online document listing bids received last month.

The bid tabulation sheet for the second phase of Metro’s new StationView lists two bids received as of Jan. 16: Connects 360 Virtual Tours submitted a bid for nearly $578,000, while Business Photos America put the cost at more than $610,000.

The transit agency unveiled the StationView virtual tours earlier this month, saying the technology would allow people with disabilities, visitors and casual users to suss out the stations’ layouts through Google Maps or the agency’s website. Metro spent about $163,000 to wire six stations and estimated that tool would be available in all 91 by the end of the year.

When the tool was announced Feb. 1, several Metro watchers on Twitter gave the service the thumbs down, with many questioning its cost. Though the estimates of about $578,000 or more are bupkis compared with Metro’s budget of $3.4 billion, critics have asked if this any way to behave for an agency that has been saying for years that it’s so starved of cash. With a budget deficit looming in the coming fiscal year, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has proposed tapping funds provided by the federal government for capital needs to cover up the gap in day-to-day expenses.

Some critics on Twitter also wondered why Metro was paying anything at all for StationView when Google offers free setup of its virtual tour service in airports, transit stations and certain other sites. The tech giant’s website also offers free loans of cameras and expertise, as this thread on Twitter pointed out:

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly, in response to questions, said the transit agency set up the system on its own because of copyright and quality concerns.

“The important distinction here is that StationView is proprietary to Metro, allowing us to retain copyright, maintain ownership of the images and provide a better quality product than would have been possible through Google,” Ly said in an email Friday. She said the tool could help familiarize visitors and reassure them with better accuracy as to how the stations are navigable.

“For example, elevators (which famously were not included in the original design of the system) are not always located next to escalator entrances and may require some navigation through the station when traveling from street to platform,” she wrote. “In the future, this feature will allow Metro to develop turn by turn instructions to accompany the visual cues and the ability to incorporate audio functionality for the low or visually impaired.”

Ly also said that, with the procurement process still underway, the agency could not comment on any aspect of pricing because officials want to encourage the lowest bids.

Staff writer Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this post.

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