Metro is proposing major budget cuts that would severely limit or halt service.
Metro's proposed sweeping budget cuts in the face of the ongoing pandemic will leave the rail and bus system operating vastly different than ever before. The proposal includes no weekend train service, closing the system at 9 p.m. with trains running only every 30 minutes on weekdays and cuts to several bus routes. It turns a mass rapid transit system into essentially a commuter rail system.
The proposed cuts would be in effect from July 2021 until June 2022, leading to wide-ranging effects on everything from students getting to school on time to employees commuting to work.
It puts into question the region's ability to recover from a deep economic slump caused by the pandemic — no matter when a vaccine might be available to help the area return to normal.
While some argue the jaw-dropping plan is akin to a nightmare scenario designed to drum up support for the transit agency, Metro officials say it's the reality they have to plan for. Short of an influx in federal funding, Metro says there is no other place to turn for help keeping afloat.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledged the impact on the community.
"You've got to remember, this system serves so much more than just work," Wiedefeld says during a media briefing Monday. "It serves sort of the fabric of the community... tourism, nightlife. People want to go to museums, they want to shop... all that is what this system does."
Some or all of these cuts could be eliminated if Congress approves a new coronavirus relief package. One bipartisan proposal announced Tuesday includes $45 billion for the entire transportation sector, but trade group American Public Transit Association says $32 billion alone is needed to save the transit industry.
The proposal doesn't have the immediate support of Republican party leaders in Congress or President Trump, so it's unclear when or if any relief will come.
Here are some of the ways Metro's cuts will impact the region if funding doesn't come through.
Back in 2011, a Metro-commissioned study declared what has generally become an accepted fact: the 50-year-old transit system has helped fuel much of the economic growth in the Washington region.
"Economic activity tied to Metro's presence is critical to the economic success of the region," it said. "Metro knits the region into a whole, enabling employment, shopping and entertainment across communities, which would be impossible with roads alone."
But with the service and staffing cuts proposed this week, many experts say the region's economic fabric could start to fray. Not only would the dramatic cuts — including slower weekday service, no weekend trains and fewer bus lines — put an overall damper on economic growth, but they could also severely hamper any recovery coming out of the pandemic.
"The impacts are real. The costs [for our economy] are going to be severe and drastic if we put these types of cuts into place. And it's going to be a long, long road ahead to be able to fully recover," says Joe McAndrew, the director of regional mobility for the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of business and civic leaders that promote regional growth.
"We as a region cannot fully recover without a functioning transit system," he says.
A recent survey from the Partnership found that nearly half of employers indicated a high level of concern about public transit safety and a low level of confidence that public agencies can control crowding and enforce the wearing of masks. That could be exacerbated by the low levels of service.
Frontline workers and employees of industries without work-from-home options will have a tougher time getting to their jobs, tourists and residents will be less mobile and thus less able to spend money across the Washington region and new developments popping up along Metrorail lines will become less attractive. That's especially the case in Virginia, says McAndrew, where the Silver Line is being built into Loudoun County.
"More than 95% of commercial real estate development is adjacent or within a half-mile to a mile of a Metro station," he says. "Our region's economy, our preferred land-use patterns and investment strategies require a successful transit system."
And while the pain will be felt across the Washington region, Yesim Sayin Taylor of the D.C. Policy Center says the District will feel it particularly acutely. D.C. has already seen its revenue depleted by hundreds of millions of dollars.
"D.C. is the destination in all of this, whether it's for tourists or workers," she says. "And the destination factor is really important in the District's tax revenue and economic growth, and Metro is like the oil that makes the whole engine work."
Service and essential workers
The proposed Metro cuts would dramatically alter the lives of workers in the service industry, particularly those who work early or late hours, or on the weekend.
"Cutting service at 9 p.m.? How are the folks who stock shelves at a grocery store supposed to get to work? How are they supposed to get home from work?" says Jonathan Williams, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, which represents workers at Giant, Safeway and other retailers in the D.C. region. "This is kind of a punch in the gut."
And, Williams adds, the proposal to drastically reduce Metro service comes in the middle of a pandemic that has deeply affected workers in grocery stores and other essential businesses, who are at heightened risk for contracting the virus at work.
"These are essential workers who have been on the front lines of a pandemic that they didn't sign up for. They've already lost hazard pay. They're getting sick every day... everything is just getting worse. And so this really just pours gasoline on a house fire," says Williams.
Williams describes Metro as a "lifeblood of the city's service sector" and says union members have already been struggling with reduced Metro service during the pandemic. Many are resorting to more expensive rideshare services to get to work on time.
"Basically, their whole day's wages have gone to an Uber fare," says Williams.
If the radical proposed cuts are indeed part of a strategy for securing federal relief, Williams says, "I hope that that works."
"But, you know, it's certainly alarming, whether that's the intent or not," says Williams.
Jaime Contreras is vice president of SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents 20,000 janitorial, security, food service and other essential workers in the region. Contreras says the cuts would be unbearable for the union's workers.
"People [are] going to have to make really hard choices of going to work or not," Contreras says.
Many of the workers already work non-traditional hours and live far from their jobs. Rideshares could cost them upwards of $30-40 one way. Union workers are only making $17-18 dollars an hour, he says. Those without a union likely are getting minimum wage.
He says it's sad that congressional leaders are leaving essential workers, who have risked their lives, out to dry.
"They're already struggling financially," he says.
Only about a quarter of D.C. students attend their neighborhood school. The rest enroll at a D.C. Public Schools campus that is not their neighborhood school or a charter school, requiring many children to take WMATA buses or trains to reach campuses.
The cuts could dramatically lengthen commutes for public school students, especially for those in the city's poorest neighborhoods, says Chelsea Coffin, who leads education research at the D.C. Policy Center, a moderate think tank.
For the 2018-2019 school year, students in affluent Ward 3 were far more likely to attend schools inside their ward than students in Wards 5, 7 and 8, according to a report published earlier this year.
Families that live east of the Anacostia River, which encompass Wards 7 and 8, also own cars at lower rates than families who live elsewhere in the District, according to research from the center.
Coffin says fewer public transportation opportunities could mean less diversity at schools across the city.
"Neighborhoods in D.C. remain racially and economically segregated, and it's going to have implications for who students attend school with," she says.
Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn called the proposed service cuts "deeply troubling" and called on the federal government to provide more financial support.
"Families and students of every age rely on public transportation to get to and from schools across the city," Kihn said in a statement. "It is imperative that our youngest residents maintain that access as a matter of opportunity and educational options."
The loss of bus and rail service could likely even affect students who travel to campuses in their neighborhoods.
Many middle and high school students who live in Ward 7 and attend schools there still rely on public transportation, says Eboni-Rose Thompson, chair of the Ward 7 Education Council. Thompson was recently elected to the D.C. State Board of Education.
Students already struggled to reach school on time because of buses and trains that arrive late, she says. Thompson says she traveled 30 minutes by bus and train to reach her middle school, which was less than a 10-minute drive from her house.
"We do not have a walkable school system," she says. "That's never been the case."
Families are also worried about having enough space to socially distance on public transportation once more schools begin to reopen, she adds.
Sports and cultural events
Many of Metro's proposed cuts could also have a direct impact next year on fans of local sports teams and audiences otherwise eager to attend live performances again.
For example, the proposed 9 p.m. closing time on weekdays would prevent Nationals diehards from catching the train home at the Navy Yard-Ballpark station after a weeknight game. With a regular 7:05 p.m. first pitch, games often end after 10 p.m.
This has led some fans to speculate about the impact of the need for increased parking and dealing with more traffic.
Without weekend Metro service, a Saturday performance of a favorite band at the Anthem could also mean choosing between hard-to-find parking or expensive ride-sharing services. Or else simply staying home.
"We are very sympathetic to budget shortfalls, but this type of move would tell the world that D.C. is a daytime city and not one meant for nightlife," Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P. which owns the Anthem, tells DCist/WAMU.
The impact would be far-flung among the area's entertainment hubs, including the Kennedy Center, the Washington Football Team and Arena Stage.
While there remains a lot of variables, (for example, it's still not known exactly when or how many NBA fans will be able to watch the Wizards again in person), a future with limited night and weekend public transportation options is a troubling one for an industry already reeling.
Destination DC, the region's tourism, conference and events association, touts this on their website: "Explore the nation's capital with ease and make your next trip to DC stress-free. We've got you covered with tips to navigate the city by Metro."
But if the cuts go through, transit could be rendered useless or not worth the hassle for visitors, many of whom use the rail system on weekends. In 2017, D.C. saw 22.8 million visitors and their spending topped $7.5 billion.
The pandemic has slowed that for now, but hospitality industries are looking for a rebound in the next year or two.
Danielle Davis, a spokesperson for Destination DC, says the association has 18 conferences or large events booked between August 2021 and June 2022, which would bring an estimated 2,500 hotel room nights to the city on peak nights.
She says 49 conventions and meetings have already been canceled, leading to more than $521.4 million in losses this year and next.
Michelle Goldchain, who wrote the tour guide "D.C. By Metro," says the cuts will harm both area residents and tourists who heavily rely on Metro to get around.
"Tourists typically only focus on a specific set of stations... the typical D.C. places: the White House, the Capitol, Smithsonian museums in Downtown," she said via email. "I'm very concerned that WMATA's plans to cut a large swatch of stations could hurt the people that actually live here.
"For tourists, I think they're more likely going to be prevented from going to Washington, D.C. over fears of COVID-19, rather than costs of garage parking or long Uber/Lyft rides."
The cuts could not only affect visitors from across the country, but others in the region who come into the city for a day trip.
"It was an easy weekend trip from Baltimore on the MARC, then the Metro to get to museums or a show," Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson wrote on Twitter. "Lunch and dinner somewhere fun. The late MARC home. I'd think twice if I had to drive/park and couldn't move between neighborhoods on the Metro."
Large scale protests
D.C. has long been the backdrop for huge national demonstrations, especially during the weekend. And many of the people who comprise those crowds use Metro trains to get in and out of the city.
Metro's second-busiest day in its history was the Women's March in 2017 when the transit system saw 1,001,616 total trips on that Saturday. But even much smaller demonstrations depend on the transit system to get people there.
"In most mobilizations of 5,000 people or more, you're in direct contact with WMATA to help alleviate any stresses on their system, and they'll often increase capacity and direct you to upcoming weekend track work," says Robby Diesu, a co-founder of D.C. Action Lab, which helps organize large-scale protests, including the Women's March. But all of that would become much harder if Metro axed weekend train service.
One way that organizers got large groups of people into D.C. in pre-pandemic times would be to bus them in, but even that plan involves WMATA, says Diesu — those private buses would park at RFK Stadium or other parking garages outside the city center, and rally-goers would take MetroRail to the sites of the demonstrations.
Diesu says that "moving 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 people without WMATA is going to be pretty hard and have a larger impact on the city because you'll have to rely on all these people driving into the city and deal with all that traffic ... the greater impact on the city and infrastructure of the city would be unconscionable."
Restaurants And Nightlife
Many hospitality workers in the region rely on Metro's train and bus service to get to and from work — sometimes at odd hours.
"Bar and restaurant workers commute at different times of the day than the traditional population that may work for the federal government or different jobs like that," says Zac Hoffman, executive vice president of the D.C. Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, a worker-driven advocacy group. "But we still need to get to and from work and get in and out of the city."
Hoffman, who is also a bartender at Cafe Fili near Union Station, says Metro has long failed to provide those workers with adequate service, particularly late at night, and that service cuts would force people to walk longer distances.
Hoffman also notes that the cuts are concerning for customers who may be inebriated, and need a safe way to get home. "We are tasked with the personal safety of our guests, legally and morally, as servers of alcoholic beverages," he says, "and we certainly would feel a lot better if everyone had access to Metro."
Joe Lapan, co-owner of Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe in Adams Morgan, calls news of the proposed cuts "pretty sobering." He says public transportation is vital for both the hospitality industry's workforce and for customers, though he notes that staff has relied on other means to get work as well, from biking to rideshare apps.
Lapan says he often gets questions like, "What time does a show end? What time's the last train?" Songbyrd is currently offering outdoor dining, and due to the city's safety restrictions has been unable to host its usual indoor concerts.
While he hasn't conducted any sort of formal survey, he imagines their clientele has become more localized during the pandemic. He says Metro's cuts could exacerbate that, making it less likely the venue will see patrons who have to travel some distance.
He adds, however, that he has more immediate concerns than imagining what might happen if Metro imposes its proposed cuts next year: "I'm trying to make it to summer 2021, you know?"