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.

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.

Tagged: retail, wmata

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.