Metro is facing nearly a $500 million budget gap and the damage could last awhile with the potential for long-term ridership losses because of the pandemic.
Facing the grimmest budget projections in its 50-year history, Metro is proposing the complete elimination of weekend service.
It is one of a series of staggering cuts the transit agency may need to make in the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2021, to close a nearly $500 million deficit.
What remains would be a "bare-bones service network to sustain essential travel," according to a presentation that WMATA's board will hear Friday.
The plan also calls for trains to run every 30 minutes, shuttering 19 stations, further slashing bus service to a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and closing the system at 9 p.m.
If the proposal is enacted, the transit agency would eliminate 2,400 jobs. That would be in addition to more than a thousand jobs already on the cutting block; in total, that represents about a third of Metro's workforce.
It would also make life exceedingly difficult for already-strained essential and off-hour workers. Many say the changes would make the system near unusable and have a devastating ripple effect on business, nightlife, sports and tourism industries that hope to make some recovery in 2021.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the cuts are the antithesis of what he hoped to do for the system, but WMATA legally has to have a balanced budget.
"When you have limited dollars, you have to prioritize based on needs and [ridership is lowest] on the weekends," said Wiedefeld. "Any cut is painful."
All of this could change if Congress passes a new federal coronavirus relief package that includes public transit funding. The American Public Transit Association says the industry needs $32 billion to survive. Metro has been sustaining itself with about $800 million that it got from the CARES Act in May, but that money runs out early next year.
"We are leaving people behind because there just isn't dollars to do it," Wiedefeld said at a media briefing.
Metro board chair Paul Smedberg says management has to plan for what's in front of them instead of hoping for federal funds to arrive.
"We thought we put together a budget that is pragmatic and that's [based on] the reality we have now," Smedberg said.
The proposed cuts include:
- Cutting weekend train service completely. Metro saw about 87,000 rail trips on a recent weekend, but that's down 80% of pre-COVID ridership levels. Weekend bus service would increase slightly to help meet demand.
- Reducing train service to every 30 minutes on all lines on weekdays. In the core of the system or where lines overlap, trains will run every 15 minutes. Currently, Metro is currently running trains about every 8 to 15 minutes depending on the time of day.
- Closing 19 stations that have had low ridership during the pandemic. The list of closures will look similar to stations Metro had previously temporarily closed during the pandemic to save money. The stations would reopen when the financial picture improves.
- Ending rail service on weekdays at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m.
- Increasing waits in the suburbs by bringing back turnbacks. All Yellow Line trains would turn around at Mount Vernon Square instead of heading all the way to Greenbelt. Half of Red Line trains would turn around at Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring. Silver Line trains would run only from Ashburn to Ballston.
- Keeping the plan to open the second phase of the Silver Line in July 2021.
- Reducing the current bus service from 60 routes to 41 routes.
Wiedefeld says if federal funding arrives before April or May, they would be able to change course and make less drastic cuts. Metro is set to finalize the budget in March and the changes would go into effect in July.
The transit agency has already had to make gut-wrenching decisions: service is currently a shell of pre-pandemic levels. Metro is also in the process of eliminating 1,400 positions through buyouts, layoffs and hiring freezes.
And more is on the way. Wiedefeld is proposing $56 million in belt-tightening measures, including deferring pay increases for non-union employees and potentially union employees and cutting employee costs by $21 million through additional buyouts, layoffs and other actions. One slide in the presentation says reducing rail hours could affect 1,500 jobs and bus changes could affect 900 jobs.
Wiedefeld said it could be problematic if federal relief arrives after layoffs.
"Where do we get those people? The train people, the electricians, the mechanics, people like that are very hard to find and if they land somewhere else, that's a big issue," he said, pointing out that it takes time to train and certify new people.
Metro is asking local governments, which provide most of its funding, for $33 million more next fiscal year. The system can legally ask localities for only a 3% budget increase each year, and it is asking for the full increase. Wiedefeld acknowledges this is a big lift for local governments that are also strapped for cash because of the pandemic.
The transit agency also may move $250 million of regular maintenance funds from the operating budget to the capital budget. That would allow Metro to take on debt for those costs and put money towards the operating budget to cover some of the budget gaps.
With ridership down on rail and buses, fare revenue has taken a major hit.
Metro had planned on about $680 million in fare revenue in fiscal year 2021, but revised that down to $117 million after the pandemic hit. However, officials do expect a slight rebound to $172 million in fiscal year 2022.
Metro's ridership projections estimate it could get about 34% of its ridership to pre-pandemic levels by June 2022. Wiedefeld predicts it could take years for ridership to fully rebound.
"Severe service reductions will affect the ability to respond to future demand growth" and "service reductions will further reduce system ridership and customer satisfaction," the presentation says.
Metro's ridership projections estimate it could get about 34% of its ridership pre-pandemic by June 2022.
Wiedefeld will present the proposed budget to the board on Friday. The board will then deliberate and take public comment on the cuts from January until March when the budget will be finalized.
The proposed cuts come as news of vaccine distribution is shifting the conversation about returning to work.
The Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of 27 of the region's largest employers, says many businesses are reacting to the news day by day.
"Certainly the vaccine news is good, but the WHO said that it will be early 2022 before most healthy, young American adults get vaccinated," says Partnership CEO JB Holston. "We are living with the pandemic through 2021 and so it's not as if suddenly come April, everyone will be back to living the way they were."
Still, Joe McAndrew, who studies transportation policy for the group, says the service cuts would be a gut punch for the region's essential workers.
"It would be a major setback if we can't set service levels to where people can rely on the system," McAndrew said. "If we get to a point in 2021 where we have a vaccine, people have an increased level of comfort going out, schools are back open and the transit system isn't there for us...
"This region cannot fully, fully operate without a quality, full-functioning WMATA."
"If that's the only thing delaying fully re-opening the economy, that's not in anyone's interest," he said. "If someone is ready to go back to the office and the only thing constraining the is there is no transportation, that slows the economy and the effect on local businesses is horrifying."
D.C. public school students relying on WMATA to get to school would see longer waits, creating further inequities for kids, McAndrew said.
All of this means roads could be more congested as people choose to drive instead of taking public transit. And residents who rely on Metro to get to jobs would be left stranded or waiting longer for trains and buses.
"It's a sad injustice that we're staring down," he said.
The Partnership has been advocating for federal relief funding; McAndrew said Congress should've stepped up months ago.
Metro is hardly alone in staring down massive funding gaps. Altogether, transit agencies across the country are looking at a budget shortfall nearly 2,000% greater than that experienced during the Great Recession, according to the New York Times.
In Philadelphia, SEPTA is weighing service cuts, layoffs and fare increases as ridership on the agency's Regional Rail is down about 85%. SEPTA recently cut overnight weekend rail service on two of its lines.
New York City, known for its 24-hour subway service, stopped overnight service in May and is considering similar cutbacks that could cost the area up to 50,000 jobs and $50 billion in lost earnings.
In September, the MTA in Los Angeles approved a $1.2-billion decrease to its 2021 budget compared to this year, solidifying temporary budget cuts from April.
Christian Zapata contributed reporting.