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Metro board says no to food, "master licensee"

Today, Metro staff presented their proposal for retail vending in Metro stations to the Board of Directors' Customer Service and Operations Committee. The plan was the same or almost the same as the plan they showed the RAC earlier this month. Board members had similar reactions to many RAC members, expressing general support for the program but opposing any exploration of food sales and pushing for a greater emphasis on small businesses.


Image from WMATA.

The Post's Robert Thomson was liveblogging during the meeting, and has a detailed summary of each member's comments. DC Councilmember Jim Graham expressed strong support for a vending program, but said that he doesn't support "opening the door" to food. He relayed an incident from a few years ago where Metro police arrested a young girl for eating a french fry, which Graham said became an international press sensation. He fears that selling food, coupled with stepped-up enforcement, would invite more french fry incidents.

Chris Zimmerman of Arlington echoed Graham's concern, as did several other members. Zimmerman said that he had previously suggested Metro explore DVD rentals with a certain vendor that already appears in many drugstores and grocery stores, or other similar options. Staff said that a previous RFP for non-food vending had only yielded three unsatisfactory responses, but Board members expressed skepticism that Metro can't make something work.

Board members also criticized the focus on a "master licensee" to operate vending at twelve or more stations. Zimmerman said that Metro is used to making very large purchases from large organizations (like huge orders of rail cars), through heavyweight procurement processes. That, he suggested, wasn't right here. Instead, the Board instructed staff to write an RFP open equally to vendors that want to serve one station or many.

Before Board members spoke, I took advantage of the new policy allowing RAC members to testify at committee meetings. I summarized some of the objections that RAC members had raised, but speaking personally, recommended that the Board allow staff to release a very broad RFP to solicit proposals for food and non-food vending, from large and small businesses alike. More data is always better than less data, and the Board can better weigh the possibilities around food with a sheaf of bids in hand, for food or for flowers, from big and small companies alike.

Perhaps vendors would suggest frozen pizzas that would be almost impossible to eat on the train. Perhaps they will devise other ideas. At the very least, it would be helpful to know how much revenue we are foregoing. Maybe the cost of added enforcement would exceed the added revenue from food. If so, that would be good to know; if not, we should know that too. But the Board decided that they weren't willing to open that particular door, at least not yet.

Zimmerman did agree with me about keeping the RFP broad in some other ways, however. Some members, like Fairfax's Jeff McKay and Graham, suggested focusing on other stations such as Franconia-Springfield or Georgia Avenue-Petworth with limited retail opportunities outside the station. That might be a good idea, Zimmerman said, but he pushed to keep the RFP itself broad enough to encompass all stations, from Gallery Place to the most desolate park-and-ride. Metro wouldn't actually sign contracts for all 86 stations, but allowing potential vendors to choose the stations, rather than Metro, would bring in the widest possible range of non-food proposals.

The committee asked Metro staff to come back next month with a revised proposal for an RFP that gives more emphasis to small businesses and excludes food. Most likely, that will result in a better program for riders, with more diversity and less trash. At the same time, it may not attract nearly as much revenue as other programs might have. That's clearly a tradeoff the Board, many RAC members, and most members of the public were willing to make.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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What a relief!

I'm so glad this bad idea was rejected.

Regarding future vending of other merchandise: I don't think this is a good idea, either. I know Metro is short on cash, but this isn't the way to get it. There are already too many vendors with tables o' crap outside of Metro stations. Do we really want even more such activity *inside* as well? When it's already cheek by jowl at rush hour?

What WMATA needs to do is raise fares and then offer discounts/vouchers to low-income folks. Most of us won't notice the financial hit, and half the people working in DC (e.g., all federal employees and many others) get free Metro from their employers anyway.

by JB on May 28, 2009 2:34 pm • linkreport

I don't think WMATA has the power to distribute discounts or vouchers, that would probably have to be done through the local jurisdictional governments.

by Michael Perkins on May 28, 2009 2:43 pm • linkreport

I hope metro focuses on small businesses and tries to keep out big business. We need variety, not more of the same. But we also need useful stuff and few tourist traps.

Most of us won't notice the financial hit, and half the people working in DC (e.g., all federal employees and many others) get free Metro from their employers anyway.

This is so short-sighted, I don't even know where to start. Yes, I do feel the financial hit from price increases. No, I am not poor. And the Feds don't ride for "free" either. That comes out of your and my taxes.

Look, I am not principally opposed to price increases, but not for such casual reasons.

by Jasper on May 28, 2009 2:49 pm • linkreport

Jasper: It needn't be a large increase--say, 10 cents on the minimum $1.45 ride. Round trip, that's another buck a week. Another $52 per year.

I don't consider avoidance of service cuts/route cuts and better maintenance casual reasons. And I think raising fares in a restrained, incremental fashion is a much better idea than allowing hordes of hawkers or vending machines.

I actually agree that raising fares is short-sighted when you compare it to the idea of greater federal investment. But in the meantime, it's one of a few realistic choices.

by JB on May 28, 2009 3:18 pm • linkreport

Those "most desolute park and ride" stations with say 6,000 parking spaces are exactly the locations vendors will bid for. These folks can use convenient shoe repair and dry cleaning drop-off and florists for when they forget that special event. The high ridership suburban locations are as valuable or more valuable than urban stops that already have the amenities nearby.

by Steve Strauss on May 28, 2009 4:15 pm • linkreport

@ JB: We agree and disagree. I do not care much about fare increased. I just don't like that you say that most people won't notice it. Fares went up recently, and I did notice. I've had to up my monthly smartrip benefit from $130 to $150.

10 cents on $1.45 is not a lot, but it would work out to something like 35c on a longer ride, which suddenly ads up to about $175 a year.

I just don't like the casual dismissal of $50 or $175 as not noticeable. The problem is that there are more of these "insignificant" increases around. Metro goes up a bit. Buses go up a bit. Parking goes up a bit. Cable goes up bit. Cell phone. If you dismiss all of them, suddenly you're out hundreds of bucks a year.

I know it's called inflation. But it does exist, and I have to hope my boss gives it to me in the end of the year too.

by Jasper on May 28, 2009 4:37 pm • linkreport

Sadly, Metro will need a major fare increase, AND increased "ancillary" revenues in order to cover upcoming deficits. I don't believe that it is an either or situation, so riders should get ready to take a hit, maybe several.

In my opinion the first thing Metro should do is raise the cash fare on the bus to $2.00; this will increase bus headways and raise money. Secondly, Metro should raise parking, fees and rail the appropriate amounts to fill the remaining budget gap. Lastly, metro should continue to investigate possible revenue sources from retail vending, not ruling out anything including food sales. Let the proposals come in and evaluate each one. Vendors proposing food sales could be required to include clean-up in their submissions(either by being directly responsible or by paying significant fees to Metro to cover the cleaning costs).

Bottom line- Metro needs new money, and Metro needs it badly! Let all those who are so vehemently opposed to food sales propose specifics as to how Metro will close the coming budget gaps, and how about proposing something besides simply raising fares, because I suspect that will not be enough!?! Dry cleaning and flowers are fine, but methinks food is the tail that wags the dog in this situation.

by KevinM on May 29, 2009 7:26 am • linkreport

@Kevinm: Parking fees should go up where the lots are full. If you increase parking fees where the lots are already not full, my calculations show that you are likely to lose revenue.

I have looked at the bus funding situation and concluded that $1.50 is an appropriate fare based solely on keeping the fares constant with inflation. However, the costs of providing service have exceeded inflation, so a higher fare may be justified.

On the other hand, why should transit riders be the only ones to pay for transit? As we've argued many times before, transit provides benefits to the community as a whole, so the community as a whole should be expected to pay more when it becomes more expensive to run.

My look at other transit systems that have dedicated taxes (like sales or wage taxes) is that they often end up in inferior financial positions to WMATA. Look at what happened to MARTA, or MTA NYC. Dedicated revenues did not prevent funding crises for those systems. Dedicated taxes, if they're sufficient, encourage jurisdictions to ignore transit operating funding needs in good years because they don't need to kick in any extra money. But getting your funding from only one source like a sales tax leaves the system vulnerable in a bad economy. If sales tax revenues drop off, the transit system has to raise fares or cut service. In our case, WMATA is funded by regional partners that have access to a variety of funding sources, some of which are more stable in a bad economy, so they were able to find the funding they could justify to their voters. It's unfortunate that wasn't enough to keep some service from being cut.

I think the best long-term plan for WMATA is to get a dedicated tax for capital improvements that raises about $500-800M per year. That would make a big dent in our capital shortfall and if the revenue fell short in one year because of a bad economy, it's less damaging in the short run to scale back capital spending than it is to scale back operating.

by Michael Perkins on May 29, 2009 8:26 am • linkreport

Sounds like performance parking, Michael...;o)

Agree in principle, but in lean economic times like these, it's hard to ask member jurisdictions for more money. Everyone's hurting...so unless you can convince people to make transit more of a priority for scarce resources, either fare increases or service cuts (or a mix of both) will be in order.

by Froggie on May 29, 2009 9:17 am • linkreport

I'm surprised you aren't advocating for food on the trains, and more money for cleaning, rather than more money for enforcement. Caltrain in the bay area allows food, it is a huge public benefit, and the trains are as clean as, or cleaner than, BART.

by David desJardins on May 30, 2009 9:32 am • linkreport

I maintain that the bus fare has been kept artificially low for some time, and that it should now be raised significantly(perhaps to as much as $2.00) in order to not only raise money for the system, but to also push more riders towards SmarTrip, which will have the added benefit of increasing bus headways. In addition, parking, other fees and rail fares will need to be raised, because the bottom line is Metro needs additional revenues to close the anticipated budget gaps in coming years. Even then, Metro will need additional new revenues, and like it or not- retail vending(including food sales) within the system is an option that must be considered, along with vastly increased advertising.

by KevinM on Jun 1, 2009 7:03 am • linkreport

@KevinM: You keep saying "increase headways" like that would be a good thing. Do you mean "decrease headways", i.e., the buses come more often?

Good Luck getting a $2.00 bus fare passed through the WMATA Board. It was impossible to get a $0.10 increase through that would have eliminated the need for any bus service cuts this year.

I doubt retail vending and increased advertising will make much of a difference for WMATA's bottom line. WMATA's advertising contractors having trouble selling the advertising space that already exists, and WMATA is likely to put so many restrictions on retail vendors that the profits will be low.

I'm trying to get WMATA fare data so we can all try different potential fare increases to see what the community is willing to accept. So far, WMATA has told me as a response to a PARP request that they don't have any such data (the number of people buying various types of fare media like passes or bus fares).

by Michael Perkins on Jun 1, 2009 9:35 pm • linkreport

Okay, so I said it wrong- I did in fact mean that buses would come more often!

I suggested an increase of the bus fare to $2.00 because i believe a significant increase is needed to change riders' behavior with regard to the use of SmarTrip, or lack thereof. Metro also saves money when more people use SmarTrip, because it doesn't have to count or process as much cash. If not $2.00, then fares should be raised some amount which might encourage more riders to change to SmarTrip- neither $.05 or $.10 will suffice!

And indeed I am advocating for retail vending without all of the restrictions that others seem to think are inevitable. Since the need will likely be great, any and all potential new revenue needs to be explored, even if it is a little here and a little there, to mitigate the needed fare and parking increase(s).

by KevinM on Jun 2, 2009 7:50 am • linkreport

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