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When An Early Morning Metro Ride Costs $22

It may have been the first time the Metro system opened extra early so riders could shop.

The Friday after Thanksgiving--Black Friday--was billed as a make or break day for retailers in this season of economic despair. And D.C. Council member Jim Graham (Ward 1), who serves on Metro's board, was eager to give the new DC USA shopping center in Columbia Heights a big boost for its first Christmas.

So Graham persuaded Metro to start the trains rolling at 4 a.m. that day, an hour earlier than usual. The cost of the early opening: $27,000.

Result: Grim. A mere 1,201 riders used the system in that one early hour. Do the math: That comes to $22.48 per passenger, though most of them got the ride at the bargain price of $1.35.

Who foots the rest of the bill? The District's taxpayers.

"Well, then, that was not nearly as successful as we thought it would be," Graham said when I broke it to him that his plan had flopped. He had a feeling the news wasn't going to be good: "The shopper turnout in Columbia Heights was not nearly up to expectations. This is another indicator that the economy is really doing poorly."

But Graham doesn't regret having done everything possible to maximize turnout for retailers and convenience for shoppers. "It could have turned out very different," he says.

Worth a try, for $27,000? Seems like a bit of a stretch to me. How many people head out to shop at 4 a.m. on any day, ever? What's your call?

Available beginning at noon today over at Raw Fisher Radio: A visit with two of the area's best hyperlocal bloggers, the Prince of Petworth, Dan Silverman; and the Silver Spring Penguin, Jennifer Deseo. Join us as we look inside the burgeoning world of online micronews in this time of media turmoil.)

By Marc Fisher |  December 16, 2008; 8:16 AM ET
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Thousands of people are out at 4 AM on Black Friday, my wife and daughters included. It's become something of a tradition.

Two things may have impacted the Metro usage: It's kind of a pain to carry your purchases on the Metro, especially on Black Friday. A car trunk is more useful. Also, how much was the early start-up advertised? If nobody knows about these things they won't be there to use them.

Actually, a third item comes to mind: maybe the good council member should have done his homework. Has Metro ever been a major source of transportation for Black Friday shoppers?

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 16, 2008 8:38 AM

Yeah, if you're going shopping at 4am, why not drive? No traffic and easy parking . . .

I wouldn't think too many people shop then. Sure, some, but that many? I'd rather get my sleep and shop at a decent hour.

I'm glad that my taxes helped these folks instead of an underpaid teacher, though.

Posted by: ah___ | December 16, 2008 9:21 AM

You know, I usually agree with your snarks, but of all the things to complain about this is pretty low. Jim's motives were good, there's no scandal here. So it didn't work out, does that mean we should never try anything?

$27,000 is chump change. Here's another bit of math for you: If there are 3 million taxpayers in the metro area (and probably, there are more) then it cost each of us 1/10th of one cent to have the metro open for an extra hour.

I'm happy to have paid that. In fact I'd pay a full CENT every day to have the metro run an extra 8 hours a day, every day. Maybe next year it'll be more successful.

Posted by: jamietre | December 16, 2008 9:48 AM

Some transit routes make money and some don't. If you cancel all the money-losers you also impact the money-makers because connections aren't there.

Maybe retail employees arriving early for 5 or 6 a.m. shopping were able to take transit.

A thousand riders is more than I'd have thought would have shown up.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 16, 2008 9:55 AM

jamietre - It's not DC metro area taxpayers that have to pay, it's just DC taxpayers. So based on $27,000 and a pop. of 580,000 (not that they're all taxpayers) - that's $.05 a person. Still chump change, but worth pointing out.

Posted by: ilikeike | December 16, 2008 10:10 AM

I also wouldn't come down too hard on Mr. Graham. A lot of retailers were probably overly optimistic about the turnout on Black Friday, as well. I agree with jamietre; I'd be in favor of running the trains early and late all the time, because there are workers who need to get to work at all hours.

I'm sorry I missed the birthday celebration yesterday, Marc--I hasten to obey whenever Joel makes a suggestion, but I haven't had much online time recently so I'm always running behind, comment-wise.

I hope your big day was very happy. I turned 50 last March and found it to be good motivation for self-improvement projects. It's nice to arrive at that age, which once seemed so old, and look around and breathe and say, hey, I still feel good and my mind is still in working order and so on. Also, in your case, there's the fact that you've been doing something you're good at for so many years, getting better at it all the time--that has to be gratifying.


Posted by: kbertocci | December 16, 2008 10:55 AM

the 4 am opening was useful to people like my husband and his employees, who opened their store at a slightly more reasonable hour of 6 am. And since they are in Old Town, if they drive, they have to pay to park in the city garage. So I actually applaud Metro and Mr. Graham's attempt to serve not just the consumers, but the people behind the counter who are so often left out of the commuting equation.

Posted by: RedBirdie | December 16, 2008 12:01 PM

It was also a rehearsal for the 4am Metro opening on Inauguration Day. And if any bugs were found, so much the better.

Some workers were able to use it to get to work. A few folks were able to use it to go shopping. But it wasn't anywhere near as heavily used as they had hoped.

But you never know unless you try. No biggie.

Posted by: observer9 | December 16, 2008 6:13 PM

Hey, Jim Graham. Open up Park Road! It took me 5 light cycles to go one block. There's only one lane open, and shoppers leaving DCUSA can't exit onto Park Road.

Brilliant timing, DDOT: tis the season to inconvenience shoppers!

Posted by: emrj | December 17, 2008 2:19 PM

Seems like a reasonable expense to me. People were trampling Walmart employee's to death by 5 in some parts of the country. I'd think it was definately worth a try.

Posted by: Dremit97 | December 17, 2008 8:27 PM

"The shopper turnout in Columbia Heights was not nearly up to expectations. This is another indicator that the economy is really doing poorly."

Isn't this a matter of the difference between the city and the suburbs? People in the burbs, I always thought, devote a lot of time to finding the absolute best bargain, and people in the city don't go in for that sort of thing so much. Look what happened in NY at the walmart. It's not that people weren't shopping this year the day after Thanksgiving. It's that people in the city don't go in for black friday craziness, and those who do....DRIVE.

This is kind of basic. And I'm surprised someone living in DC as long as Graham has, let alone that he's a councilmember, doesn't get it.

Posted by: dc4mckinney | December 18, 2008 7:41 AM

I was the poster who asked Marc about this during the last chat, and I would like to thank him for following up. My suspicions have been confirmed. I hope that exposing this will keep Graham more in check, because between and treating the firefighter recruits as his personal party staff, he's really getting out of control. Thanks, Marc.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | December 18, 2008 4:36 PM

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