Picturing More Revenue, Reliability: Metro to Install Monitors With Ads, Information for Riders

By Lena H. Sun

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008; Page B01

Metro plans to install large flat-screen video monitors to carry system information and advertising in rail cars, train stations, buses and bus shelters in an effort to improve customer communication and earn much-needed revenue, officials said yesterday.

The video screens would supplement the popular electronic display boards on train platforms and at station entrances, which list arrival times and elevator and escalator outages. The 65-inch LCD monitors would show not only train arrival times, but also the time, weather and news. About two-thirds of the screen would be devoted to advertising.

But during major service disruptions, there would be no advertising. The screens would provide riders with real-time information about which rail lines are running, display shuttle bus locations, and give station-specific information about where to catch a bus or how to get to a nearby station.

Poor communication during major incidents is one of riders’ biggest complaints. They often are frustrated and confused because station and train operator announcements are hard to hear and difficult to understand and because employees on the platforms often don’t provide riders with enough information about where they should go.

A Metro board committee voted 7 to 1 to approve a request to solicit proposals, which will probably happen next month. If Metro awards a 10-year contract this summer for the system, dubbed the Metro Channel, officials anticipate the first pilot screens with more passenger information would be installed by the end of the year. Screens with advertising would not begin use until the end of 2010; the entire project, installation of 3,000 to 5,000 digital signs throughout the bus and rail systems, would take four to six years.

The proposal is designed for a contractor to cover all costs, including the screens, technology and installation, officials said. Metro projects it could bring in $16 million to $178 million during the length of the contract.

Metro receives $35 million from static advertising: the posters and banners in trains, stations and buses. That contract, with CBS Outdoor, expires in 2010. The company that wins the contract for the video advertising would also be responsible for selling static ads, officials said.

One key issue that emerged yesterday involved whether the new monitors would have audio.

Some disabled riders want audio, said Suzanne Peck, Metro’s technology chief, who heads part of the project.

But board members said they weren’t sure that most riders want more sound.

“I can always turn my head” to avoid looking at advertising, said board member Christopher Zimmerman, who represents Virginia. “But sound is imposed upon me. It’s hard enough now to hear the station announcements.”

Peck said potential contractors will be required to provide a no-sound option. She said features exist that allow people to push a button or use a wireless device to trigger sound. The decision on whether the screens will have sound will be up to the board, she said.

Board member Jim Graham, who represents the District and cast the dissenting vote, said he was more troubled by the larger issue of how much advertising should be in the Metrorail system. As he watched a demonstration that showed train arrival times on one part of a screen and a movie preview for “Terminator 2″ on another section, Graham said he was disturbed by the movie scenes of “skulls and people’s heads going through glass.” He said it was not appropriate for Metro, which was designed as a kind of “urban cathedral” that would give riders a sense of “awe and appreciation.”

Board member Catherine Hudgins, who also represents Virginia, said she appreciated the desire to maintain design purity. But Metro needs the revenue, she said. The largest fare and fee increase in the agency’s history began last month, and many riders have said they want Metro to maximize revenue from all sources, including advertising.