Free Minds & Free Markets

D.C.'s Transit Agency Is Selling $45 Leggings Instead of Fixing the Damn Subway

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is rife with mismanagement and dysfunction. So its decision to open a store is actually on-brand.

The subway system in Washington, D.C., routinely catches on fire. Large portions of the system were shut down for a massive maintenance project last year, only to have to be closed again this year because more repairs are needed. Personnel costs are bankrupting the system, ridership is declining, and the officials in charge of the mess are trying to convince various governments to give the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) more money, forcing non-riders to fund a larger share of the costs.

So, hey, how about a T-shirt?

Metro Catalog 2018Metro Catalog 2018

WMATA is pivoting to retail this week, with the grand opening of its new "M Store" tomorrow at the Metro Center subway station in downtown Washington. Today it released a catalog of the new store's offerings, and subway riders were absolutely stoked by the opportunity to purchase Metro-branded leggings, socks, T-shirts, and accessories.

Just kidding.

And if you think opening a retail store in the year 2018 to sell overpriced stuff that no one really wants is a colossal waste of money that could be spent instead on fixing some of the subway's many, many problems—well, just wait until you see the video they made to promote the new store.

Reason has asked WMATA for an accounting of money spent on the M Store marketing campaign, along with a revenue projection for the store itself. We will update when that information is provided.

The opening of the new retail store coincides with an ongoing push from the WMATA to get governments in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. to provide a new stream of "dedicated funding" for the system. In other words, because fewer people are voluntarily giving their money to WMATA, the agency is asking to have the money taken from riders and non-riders alike.

That argument would be a little less laughable if it weren't coming from the people who thought "Foggy Bottom" leggings were a good idea.

Mass transit agencies exist for one purpose: to move people around a city. WMATA frequently fails to do that. But even if the D.C. Metro always ran on time, never got into accidents, and consistently ran a budget surplus, opening a retail store to sell Metro-branded gear would be a questionable use of the agency's limited resources and its employees' time. There is no universe where "run a glorified gift shop" is a core function of mass transit.

That's especially true for WMATA, which is a bloated mess of bad contracts and poor accountability. More than 1,000 of WMATA's 12,500 employees make salaries in excess of six figures. Personnel costs (those salaries and the pensions for retired Metro workers) account for a whopping 74 percent of the agency's operating costs. Efforts to rein in those costs—say, by shifting workers into 401(k)-style pension plans—have predictably been opposed by unions and Democratic politicians.

Meanwhile, ridership declined by 12 percent during 2016, while the system's budget deficit ballooned to $125 million. Unfunded pension and health care liabilities come to nearly $3 billion.

And the problems at the top manifest themselves in a workplace culture that leaves something to be desired. "Consciously or subconsciously, everyone at Metro knows they've got a job for life, unless they sit there and smoke crack in the middle of the platform," one former WMATA mechanic told Washingtonian in 2015.

The WMATA is rife with mismanagement and dysfunction. Which means that, actually, the decision to open a retail store is exactly on-brand.

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    We will update when that information is provided.


  • LDRider||

    Damn, you beat me to it.... it'll happen when hell freezes over, Democrats practice fiscal restraint, or the Dallas Cowboys win another Super Bowl.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Ah, Congress's toy train set. I was a regular rider in the 1990's and found it pleasant, though it wouldn't work for commuters, or wouldn't work well enough to entice them away from their cars. Factor in a monthly pass, parking, and the cost in time and you were going to be spending more money than you would on a car, unless you could get a discount on the pass through your work AND went to the trouble of deducting the cost of your commute on your taxes.

    Still, for somebody with a bicycle pass or a tourist, it was a nice way to get around the city.

    I was back a year or so ago, commuting in from a hotel to e hospital (with almost no parking). The place was a mess.

    See, light rail is expensive to build and run, and inflexible. Bus routes would be cheaper. But it takes a REAL low rent politician to want to cut the ribbon on a new bus stop.

  • John||

    The problem with the DC Metro is that they stole all of the money and never did any maintenance. The thing was new and could get by without maintenance for a long time. But about ten years ago, it finally caught up with them and the whole system started to fall apart. The thing went from pleasant and mostly usable to utterly unreliable and often dangerous. So now they are trying to catch up on 40 years of maintenance while running a system. That doesn't work too well. It is costing them a fortune, taking forever, and even if they do catch up, they will have an aging and outdated system and nothing close to as good as what they had to start with or what people expect.

  • silver.||

    Indeed. I consider myself a DC Metro enthusiast, but the program is horribly mismanaged. They had a system that was much more pleasant than NYC (fewer riders shitting on the floor) and they ruined it with neglect. I only used it as a tourist, and it fails to suffice for even that now.

    It's a damn shame what government can ruin.

  • Rat on a train||

    unless you could get a discount on the pass through your work
    Government employees get a $260 monthly subsidy.

  • Juice||

    I was a regular rider in the 1990's and found it pleasant, though it wouldn't work for commuters, or wouldn't work well enough to entice them away from their cars.

    Where the fuck do you intend to park your car all day? Once I got sick of Metro I was willing to spend a little more on a spot in a garage. I got an awesome deal for only $195 a month and it was only a half mile walk to work, but that building got remodeled and the next cheapest place was $275 a month and usually they're over $300 a month to park.

  • Brandybuck||

    All you gotta know about the DC Metro is that's where the feral ghouls live...

  • John||

    They are the ghosts of all of the passengers the system has killed.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    No, ghouls are corporeal undead with a taste for human flesh.

  • Red Tony||

    So Sevo?

  • Thrackmoor||

    And outside the stations you often find Super Mutants...

  • StackOfCoins||

    I'd like to think they're surviving Congress critters. Makes that disintegration with a plasma rifle just so much more satisfying...

  • John||

    Public transit sucks. If there was an economic need for it, it would have already been built and there wouldn't be a need for it to be public. The problem is that they did build it. They wasted billions building the DC metro and that caused people to build in places where the metro went that would make no sense if the metro wasn't there. Thanks to public transit systems, jobs and homes get crammed into center cities and clustered around transit stops making life without the public transit virtually impossible. If they had never built the damn thing at all, development would have been more spread out and sensible and everyone would be better off. But they did and now the entire area is saddled with a white elephant that has made itself indispensable and does nothing except extort more and more money from the taxpayers and commuters.

  • earthandweather||

    Well.....In the ads defense...It's kind of a catchy tune lol

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    When Republicans used to admonish government agencies about running more like a business, this is the unintended consequence of that.

  • John||

    That was always one of the dumber talking points. Government can't run like a business. Businesses exist to make a profit and are accountable for making a profit within the law and consistent with whatever promises they made to their investors. Process matters in business only insofar as it produces results. Government is different. Government doesn't exist to make a profit. Goverment exists to represent the needs and interests of the public. That means process is an end in itself. In business, no one cares why you do something only that it works and makes money. In government, making even the most correct decision for the wrong reasons and without following some kind of transparent, consistent process is tyranny. So, government is never going to be as efficient as business and cannot, for the most part, be run on business principles. Government will always be inefficient if for no other reason than inefficiency is a necessary byproduct of avoiding tyranny.

  • Brandybuck||

    Government does not, and cannot, run like a business. Unless you think the Mafia is a business.

    A legitimate business cannot point a gun at the customer and demand they buy a product. A legitimate business can't go taxing the general public to get money. Granted, some PARTS of government could be run like a business. But such parts should really be privatized and sold off. Parts like the post office, etc. And granted, some legitimate businesses do get into bed with government so they can indirectly point guns and be taxing. But they can't do it on their own.

    A private DC Metro would only be able to collect fares voluntarily, and if it failed to make a profit for long enough it would sell off the assets to another business that could. It would mean the private metro would have to perform maintenance or lose money. It would have treat the customer respectfully or lose money. It might be a "natural monopoly" but it would still have to compete with cars, buses, trains, and bicycles.

  • John||

    Pretty much that. Businesses can be tyrannical because you don't have to give them your money. Governments in contrast forcibly take your money and force you to participate and have an interest in their workings. That means governments must be transparent and see process and openness as an end rather than the means that businesses see them.

  • Rhywun||

    So Reason shouldn't be running cruises when they're constantly asking for my money. After all, can't do two things at once, right?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's probably be nice if the DC transit system did one thing at once semi-well.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    And say what you want about Reason staffers, they are damn good at drinking on a boat.

  • Rhywun||

    Yeah, that article would be more interesting to me than the clickbaity one we got instead.

  • LDRider||

    It does. Lose money.

  • Fairbanks||

    Whether DC Metro can do two things well at once is beside the point. Running a retail business is not a legitimate function of a government entity.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Unfunded pension and health care liabilities come to nearly $3 billion.

    This what stronger public sector unions look like.

  • CE||

    California laughs in your general direction.

  • ||

    The subway system in Washington, D.C., routinely catches on fire.
    The WMATA is rife with mismanagement and dysfunction. Which means that, actually, the decision to open a retail store is exactly on-brand.

    So it's only a matter of time until their pants actually catch fire?

  • Priscilla King||

    Their pylon leggings...well, I chortled.

  • BYODB||

    This isn't actually that bad of an idea since it's an attempt to get an alternative revenue stream going that brings in dollars from a wider group. I mean, it could be rife with lots of other problems but it's not a huge cost to implement an on-demand online retail store and arguably it should generate more revenue than it costs.

    But, since it's government and furthermore a Union it almost certainly won't work.

  • John||

    The problem is that there is nothing more addictive than free money. WMATA is broke because it is utterly inefficient and wastes most of the money it takes in. Whatever money it makes from this will be largely wasted.

  • BYODB||

    Obviously, I'm just saying in the narrow context of 'should the system have a retail shop' the answer is almost certainly 'yes'. Will they flush any money they could potentially earn down the same toilet as all the rest? Also obviously a yes.

    This of course assumes that anyone buys the merchandise which is unknown to me since I don't have their business plan in front of me. With the way these types usually make their assumptions, I would guess they overestimated potential revenue from this just like they do with everything else.

    I just thought it was odd that people would attack a failing system for trying to raise a little side revenue. Certainly it's not a grand solution (and it's potentially a loss, but I doubt a larger one), but it's not really a bad idea either.

    I suppose it's sort of emblematic of their issues regardless of if it's a 'good idea'. Especially since, by my notions at least, their design work is crap for the demographic it seems they're aiming at. I doubt anyone will be interested in the shirt shown above, for example. It's just ugly.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    This of course assumes that anyone buys the merchandise ... I would guess they overestimated potential revenue from this just like they do with everything else.

    Judging by the small sampling of Twitter reactions in the article, I'd say that in all likelihood not very many people will actually buy their shitty clothes, which means they almost certainly did overestimate their potential revenue. They'll probably end up losing money, we'll just have to wait and see how much and if they shut down their retail side business once it becomes clear the it'll never turn a profit or if they'll just keep throwing good money after bad. My guess would be the latter.

  • silver.||

    You make a good point. We shouldn't admonish bloated public projects for trying to be more business-like. Yeah, it's stupid as hell, but they're at least trying something other than stealing money from taxpayers.

  • Red Tony||

    I was going to comment this if nobody else did: the train station opening a gift shop isn't completely stupid if they make money off of it. Actually, it's what we'd want them to do rather than trying to tax non-riders. Granted, it won't work and the commercial is fricking stupid and they should fix the subways, but it's not as bad an idea as they make it out to be.

    *looks at headline again*


  • Fairbanks||

    How about they open fast food franchises? Or auto dealerships? Or .... Running businesses is not the purpose of the public sector. The purpose is to provide services that are not providable by the private sector and use user fees and/or taxes to fund them.

  • Griffin3||

    Is there anyone on this site who thinks that after union-paid salaries, shrink, advertising [including paid advertising push aside to market this mess], inventory sitting around, price reductions, and employee benefits ... that this will ever actually be a profit center?

  • Fairbanks||

    Absolutely not. Running businesses is not a legitimate function of government entities, whether or not it creates another revenue stream.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Idiot marketing. That is, marketing to people who are idiots. Not the sort of idiots who are poor, unemployable, and always in trouble. That's more along the lines of bail bondsmen, payday loans, etc. It's targeting the sort of idiots who like buying rubbish because all their fellow childish brainless people are buying it. Some ambitious but shallow exec at WMATA wants to think it's the next Apple.

  • Rat on a train||

    Maybe they finally realize they suck in the transit business and want to transition to something else.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Reason has asked WMATA for an accounting of money spent on the M Store marketing campaign, along with a revenue projection for the store itself. We will update when that information is provided.

    Which I'm sure they'll provide just as soon as BWAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!1!!11!!! Sorry, couldn't get that all the way out.

    What, you they're accountable or something? Nah, brah.

  • colorblindkid||

    Oh. My. God. That video is one of the most atrocious things I've ever seen. Even the black and Asian people were dancing like drunk white girls. Where the hell did they find these people? Who thought this was a good idea? WTF is wrong with our government?

  • Red Tony||

    WTF is wrong with our government?

    Americans elected a man best known for doing a reality TV show whose campaign was basically a showcase of his insult comedy, and his opponent–who had worked in government for most of her life, I remind you–thought it was plausible for her to win just by pointing out how horrible he was as a human being (71% of ads from Clinton were focused on this issue; in the previous election, 29% of Romney's ads were focused on the economy, and that was the largest issue for him or Obama).

    And this reality show insult comic? He's a step up from the presidents of the last fifteen years (probably the last 20 or 30, too).

    That, my friend, is what's wrong with our government in a nutshell.

  • jcw||

    Using it as a commuter train for about 4 years, I haven't had any huge problems. I give myself an extra 10 minutes in the morning and I have been late to work only a handful of times in that time period. Anecdotal evidence though; I haven't been on a fire train yet.

    I think talks of a purple line is more insane than this stupid wanna be "the tube from england" store.

  • operagost||

    This article is not toy.

  • David Nolan Michael Hihn||

    All your base are belong to us.

  • CE||

    Mass transit agencies exist for one purpose: to move people around a city.

    You forgot the jobs program, the retirement program, and the opportunity to reward political donors with lucrative construction and repair projects.

  • Entelechy||

    Why stop at leggings when you're creating demand for sedan chairs?

  • Eidde||

    WMATA with these people?

  • Richard Grieco||

    I guess in theory this thing would be revenue neutral at worst. They already have an empty ticket booth at Metro Center, so all they need to do is put some shirts and pants in there and sell them at a hefty markup. In reality, they will pay a few million to renovate the old ticket booth and then staff it with somebody pulling $50K/year plus pension, and then sell less than 10,000 items before a newspaper expose in 10 years embarrasses the staff into shutting this little project down.

    Why don't they just make the store 100% online and then rent out the ticket booth space to Starbucks, Peets, McDonalds, Dunkin, etc.? A store for buying Metro branded clothes cannot possibly be the highest and best use of this space. That way they get better profit margins on their clothes and they get a relatively steady income stream from the retail space (although increased trash in the trains). But I think the mistake I'm making here is thinking that they actually want to make money and not just have a store to brag about to their friends.

  • jcw||

    Why don't they just make the store 100% online and then rent out the ticket booth space to Starbucks, Peets, McDonalds, Dunkin, etc.?

    No food allowed in metro. No bathrooms in metro. It would be pretty ridiculous for them to do that.

  • Priscilla King||

    Well, I'm just an aging White girl...I want a pair of those pylon leggings. Takoma Station, please. Since I no longer live in the city or ride Metrorail, even as a tourist, the lettering would remind me of my long-gone youth. So I'd guess that that's the point.

    WMATA had a store in the 1980s, too. I actually saw adults wearing the shirts with the subway map on the front. I was not aware that the store had ever closed. I'm wondering whether it did close, or whether it's only the ad campaign that's new; the "Metro Souvenir Shop" used to be publicized only by people wearing the shirts or using the mugs.


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