With sharply reduced ridership and lacking fresh federal relief, Metro is proposing a new operating budget with a nearly $500 million deficit.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Monday the proposed 2021 budget includes closing Metrorail at 9 p.m., ending weekend service, closing 19 rail stations and reducing the number of trains, which would result in longer wait times.
“We’re facing. obviously, a historic budget crisis. It started in (fiscal year) 21 and will continue in (fiscal year) 22,” Wiedefeld said.
Everything would be reduced to “bare bones service” meant to support essential travel, while ensuring Metro survives to serve the region during a recovery.
Under the proposal, Metrobus service would be reduced to about 45% of pre-pandemic levels. Weekend bus service would be increased to account for the lack of weekend rail service.
According to Metro’s budget proposal, the 19 stations that would close are:
- Arlington Cemetery
- Cleveland Park
- College Park
- East Falls Church
- Eisenhower Avenue
- Federal Center SW
- Federal Triangle
- Judiciary Square
- Morgan Boulevard
- Mt. Vernon Square
- Van Dorn Street
- Virginia Square
“This is by no means a doomsday scenario,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s really not even a worst-case scenario. A worst-case would be if revenues stayed totally flat … a doomsday would be if we had to shut down service or something worse.”
Metro’s proposed FY2022 budget includes salary freezes, layoffs and deferring wage increases for union employees.
The changes, if approved, would be effective in July.
WTOP has contacted the union representing Metro employees for comment.
While Metro is forecasting sharply lower revenue next year, its expenses are rising. In addition to employee benefits, the agency is still paying for the second phase construction of its Silver Line expansion while adopting expenses from its Cinder Bed Road Bus Garage.
Metro’s expenses have grown because of the pandemic, as it has paid more than $10 million for testing, increased personal protective equipment and cleaning.
The transit agency said riders have slowly returned, with Wiedefeld saying current data shows the return of 20-25% of the pre-pandemic ridership. While numbers are expected to increase next year, they plan to remain far below historic levels. Projections, Wiedefeld said, depend on the availability of a coronavirus vaccine and the willingness of riders to use the system.
The effects of the pandemic caused Metro to scale back its operations, with Metrorail opening at 5 a.m. and closing at 11 p.m. on weekdays. It received $876 million in federal funding in May through the CARES Act to help maintain a balanced budget, while scaling up its operations for reopening and providing coronavirus protection supplies to employees.
While the transit agency restored the majority of its rail and bus services to its pre-pandemic schedule in August, Wiedefeld said at the time it faces a “looming crisis” without more federal funding.
Metro Board member Matt Letourneau of Loudoun County, Virginia, agreed, saying in September that the influx of riders expected had not returned to use mass transit.
“Quite frankly, the big ticket for our Metro system is the federal government … And I think it’s fair to say we that we were expecting more ridership to return when the federal government started recalling employees than has been the case,” he said earlier this year.
The addition of more federal aid from Congress could help avoid the cutbacks, Wiedefeld said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called the proposal “deeply troubling” but also a reminder of why more federal aid needs to be provided. She also said it was important for everyone “regardless of party or ideology” to come together to help Metro.
The problems Metro is facing, from reduced ridership to a budget shortfall, are not exclusive. Wiedefeld said transit agencies in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Chicago are wrestling with similar issues with no “clear sense” of when their revenues sources will return.
“The reality is, in the short term, $500 million is what we would need from the federal government basically to get back up to where we were,” Weidefeld said. “Right now, that’s basically what we’re talking about, and the sooner, the better.”