U.S. Sen. Mark Warner says he will lobby for additional funding for the region’s transit systems in the upcoming COVID relief bill and is telling the leaders of WMATA, the Virginia Railway Express and others to “think big” about how they could use federal money in an upcoming infrastructure package.
Warner, D-Virginia, spoke during a meeting Feb. 19 hosted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission in Arlington. He was joined by Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine, as well as the heads of VRE, WMATA, OmniRide and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
With the region’s trains, planes and buses almost universally seeing significantly lower ridership since last March, many agreed that it would be some time before the public came back to public transit in pre-pandemic numbers, but all agreed that Northern Virginia’s systems must be ready when they do.
Bob Schneider, executive director of OmniRide, told Warner that the system was losing $850,000 per month at one point, and that it would have had to stop running if it weren’t for the CARES Act and the stimulus that Warner helped broker in December, which included $14 billion for public transit systems.
“We have to be available and open because… one day [the U.S. Office of Personnel Management] is going to send out the signal that says ‘Come home, come back to the office,’” Schneider said. “Whether it’s one day a week or five days a week, we have customers that still go to the Pentagon because they can’t do their security work from their home. If we’re not fully ready, we’re not fully functional the day that OPM makes that call, we’re going to let the country down.”
Warner is part of Senate negotiations over a proposed $1.9 trillion relief bill that would include money for transit systems as well as for state and local governments. The money will probably come with fewer restrictions on how it can be used than was the case with the CARES Act passed last spring. The region’s transit heads were in agreement that because of the pandemic, revenues had dropped so sharply that the federal money was greatly needed if service levels were going to be able to accommodate the return of riders in a post-pandemic world.
Warner said he expects this will be the last big-ticket relief bill Congress passes, with Democrats holding slim majorities in the House and Senate. But the third-term Senator sounded optimistic about the potential for bipartisan agreement on an infrastructure bill, something that eluded both the Trump and Obama administrations.
Valentine and others talked up the significant improvements to rail service that will be paid for by the state through the Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative announced early last year. Among them will be expanded VRE service and near-hourly Amtrak service from Richmond to Washington. If the federal government became a partner in the project, she said, the timetable could be moved up.
“I don’t want everybody’s eyes to get too big, but as we think about shaping a Biden infrastructure package, thinking about what we might want to make as both Virginia’s but also the capital region’s premier projects,” Warner said. He listed the long-planned renovations at Union Station and the rail project in Virginia as possibilities. “There may never be a time like right now … think big but also think bold. … The numbers are of such scale right now.”
Regionwide, most rail and commuter ridership is down 80-90% since the onset of the pandemic. But local bus ridership has been closer to 50% down. With many white-collar jobs moving to work from home, no one knows how commuting patterns will look coming out of the pandemic.
In a region-wide survey released by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments earlier this month, 47% of respondents said they plan to drive less one year after the pandemic and 38% said they plan to use public transit less frequently than they did. Thirty-four percent said they planned to drive more, and only 13% said they would ride the train or bus more.
But Paul Wiedefeld, the general manager and CEO of WMATA, which operates Metro, said the pandemic has created an opportunity to rethink the way many transit service levels are dictated by traditional white-collar commuting patterns, with more frequent service during “peak” rush hour times. The relatively high levels of bus ridership from essential workers throughout the pandemic showed there’s need around the clock.
“It’s time to reinvent transit, not only in this region but in the country. It’s not just for serving peak periods, it is about much larger things,” Wiedefeld said. “It is about equity, it’s about environmental quality, it’s about economic development. … Maybe we start to look at things, why are we running just peak service, why don’t we run that level of service all day to meet that demand and also generate that demand?”
Fundamentally, Warner said, some things won’t be too different after COVID, and with the region expected to continue growing, moving people around efficiently will be key to reducing congestion and increasing economic development.
“People are going to want to move in metropolitan areas,” Warner said.