- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

Metrorail officials are considering adding permanent Spanish-language signs, system maps, fare-card machines and announcements in stations after a push by immigration advocates.

They say the idea has been discussed for several years within the agency’s Office of Project Communications, but no official plans have been made.

The estimated cost of the changes is at least $500,000 per station and as much as $900,000 for a large, multilevel station such as Metro Center or L’Enfant Plaza.

“It would really depend on what signs, where, what they’re made of, the cost of fabricating and installing them,” said Murray Bond, director of sales and marketing at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “It’s a strain on the budget, but in a business sense, by giving people better information to use the system, hopefully they’ll use it more, [and] every time they use it, we get a fare.”

The Urban Institute estimates that more than 1 million immigrants and illegal aliens live in the region, and about 40 percent of them are Hispanic. The region annually draws 1 million tourists from overseas, the U.S. government-run Office of Travel and Tourism Industries reports.

Immigration advocates say riders with limited English skills might have difficulty understanding how to transfer between lines or how to use fare-card machines and schedules, and they fear rebuke from Metro staff if they seek help in broken English.

“Many immigrants come from areas where they’re not using a Metro system,” said Kim Propeack, a spokeswoman for immigrant rights group CASA of Maryland.

A 2003 report by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board’s Access for All Advisory Committee called for more bilingual staffers, improved foreign-language pamphlets and the incorporation of universal symbols to help the region’s immigrant riders, who represent 193 countries and speak languages including Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Urdu and Amharic.

Chicago, New York and other U.S. cities with sizable Hispanic populations use bilingual signs in their train stations.

“You can’t cover all the languages on signs … but that isn’t to say for a commonly known language like Spanish you don’t want some secondary signs,” said Kathy Porter, committee chairwoman and mayor of Takoma Park.

Some critics say immigrants should learn English instead of urging Metro to conform, which would send the wrong message about the expectations of those who come to the country.

John Fonte, director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute, called it “strange” that Metro officials are willing to spend so much on the change. He noted that they initially resisted changing maps to reflect the name change for the airport Metro stop from Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport because of the cost.

After a congressional order, officials in 2002 spent $398,500 of Metro’s operating budget to replace all signs, fare charts, system maps and literature in all stations and rail cars to reflect the new airport name.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said concern has been raised about space on fare-card machines, which already are cluttered with information.

Metro includes Spanish-language announcements and signage during major events such as baseball games, he said. For the May 17 rally for immigrant rights in the District, Metro spent a “minimal” amount of its special-events budget on 8-inch-by-11-inch paper signs instructing Spanish speakers how to use fare-card machines.

Metro officials said space and money are the biggest barriers to immediate changes.

“We want to understand what [Hispanics’] needs are and how Metro can serve them best,” Mr. Bond said.

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