Zimmerman (left) and Linton (right). Image from WMATA.

A few hours after debating the value of innovation regarding NextBus, Arlington’s Chris Zimmerman and Maryland’s Gordon Linton continued their debate over technology at the full Board meeting. In the interim, the Metro Board renewed John Catoe’s contract with a small raise. I addressed the Board during the public comment period about Google Transit, presenting the arguments in this handout.

This post summarizes the discussion; tomorrow, I’ll present my take. The audio of the exchange begins at 42:15 in this stream.

I told the Board how we’d discovered that neither New York, Chicago, or any other transit agency whose contract we obtained is getting money from Google in exchange for providing transit data. Therefore, it’s virtually impossible for Metro to do so. As a result, spending $500,000 on a contract to find out how much they can get is simply throwing $500,000 down the drain. Gordon Linton, the alternate director from Montgomery County and former FTA head, responded first to my comments.

I clearly understand your position, and I also underst the source of your information. But I will say to you very candidly that I have had discussions with some of the same agencies htat you suggested had no revenues, and part of it is that they never considered the opportunity for revenues. So it is not that revenues do not exist.

Yes, we at Metro are looking at intellectual property. Our riders and the jurisdictions and taxpayers have to pay for these services. It is our responsibility to look at every opportunity for revenues in every item that we do. Because another transit agency has chosen not to do that, including New York, Los Angeles and others, and I’ve talked to the marketing reps from those agencies, and they’ve never explored it, that does not suggest that we should not.

Our staff has been directed by the board to do exactly what they’ve done with intellectual property, because we need to make sure that we’re receiving revenues for all the assets that Metro has, and we need to consider that on behalf of all our riders.

Chris Zimmerman first explored the issue of indemnification. In a nutshell, New York and Chicago have negotiated contracts where they don’t indemnify Google for anything. Staff have claimed that’s a sticking point, but since these other agencies have gotten past that, Zimmerman suggested that Metro try to get the same.

Sarah Wilson, the Metro staff member working on this issue, replied to Zimmerman’s question about indemnification by bringing up an unrelated argument:

We did an anlysis of the ten major transit properties, and we are the only ones who solicit advertising on our own website. What that means is that to the extent that we are driving traffic to our website that is helpful towards revenues that we derive.

Zimmerman interrupted Wilson to ask her to focus on the question he asked, about indemnification. Wilson then told the Board that Metro hasn’t tried to negotiate away the indemnification since we found out that other transit agencies have removed the clause.

Zimmerman continued:

A far as the revenue side goes I certainly agree that we should explore, and I think we have a duty to explore, any possibility for revenue. And I agree with Mr. Linton that transit agencies dont always do that and we should. And I support your efforts to find out the value of any intellectual property that we have including those provided by the internet.

On the other hand, I don’t see any reaason for us not take advantage of opportunities right now, today, to provide more information to customers that doesn’t cost us anything, as long as we protect the long term value. In other words, we don’t have to say that, now and forever, we’re going to do something for free. Mr. Linton, in an earlier meeting, cited our example of car sharing, and I think it is instructive. He correctly pointed out that we are now getting some rev back from that contract, as we should because someone is making money off it. And that was right. But we just started out by saying, let’s just get car sharing started, and the people coming in weren’t making a lot of money on it, and we didn’t expect to make any money on it. And after a few years we were able to do that.

Right now it seems to me there’s an opportunity to provide benfit to customers, both those who live here and those who come from around the country, to be able to sue our system more effectively in a way that it looks like doesn’t cost anything. If there’s a way to do that and, again, hold out the possibility in the future… This is a very dynamic environment. The Internet changes all the time. You dont want to bind yourself well into the future. But

why not do something now.

I’ve got a trip coming up to another city. I’m going to Boston for a conference, and I ... was able to have it tell me how to use transit in the city of Boston to get from the airport to the location of the conference. The kind of thing everybody here’s probably done on the Web when you’re driving somewhere. It seems to me that it’s a very tangible benefit we could have and I don’t see anything that I’ve heard told that says we can’t do that without causing some kind of long-term damage. I don’t see what the loss to us is, assuming we can clear up this indemnification issue, what significant cost there would be to us of allowing that to happen in Washington, DC and its surroundings just like right now it is in New York, Chicago, Boston, and most of the major cities in the country.

Next: Who’s right? Both, and neither, but mostly Zimmerman is spot on.

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.