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Metro board approves budget cuts, buyouts as pandemic dents agency’s budget

A man exits the Metro Center station in downtown Washington.
A man exits the Metro Center station in downtown Washington. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Metro board members unanimously approved service cuts and a buyout plan Thursday aimed at avoiding as many layoffs as possible as the transit agency faces a $176 million budget shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency will offer retirement-eligible employees $15,000 to leave in hopes that several hundred workers will accept the incentive — part of an effort to shed 1,400 jobs. The move didn’t sit well with Metro’s biggest employee union, which called on the agency to wait for help from the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, which has pledged an initial $10 billion nationally for transit.

“It is clear that [Metro] is rushing to cut service and lay off employees, especially when there is a great possibility for additional funding under the incoming Biden-Harris administration,” Raymond Jackson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said in a statement. “No employees, union or not, should be laid off during this time.”

Metro considers buyouts to stave off 1,400 layoffs due to pandemic-created financial crisis

But Metro officials have said that aid probably will come too late, as funds to keep the transit system operating at current levels will run out around March 1.

“Without any degree of certainty for federal funding or federal relief for transit agencies, the reality is we have to deal with the situation that’s before us right now. And while it’s very difficult, we had to make that decision,” Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said. “Unfortunately, we can’t wait two months or three months.”

Board members applauded Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for lowering his initial target of eliminating 1,700 jobs.

“I want to commend management for announcing a buyout proposal that will essentially encourage people at retirement age with a buyout bonus to retire early, so there won’t have to be — or at least we will be able to minimize — the number of involuntary job losses that will result from Metro employees,” board member Michael Goldman said.

Metro officials say they have run out of options to avoid making difficult decisions as they grapple with the crisis brought by the pandemic, which has devastated the agency’s operating budget while also putting employees at risk.

The agency on Thursday announced the death of a second employee from the virus. The worker, a storeroom clerk, died over the weekend after taking sick leave for more than a month. The worker has not been identified.

Metro loses first employee to covid-19

“The passing last weekend of one of our store clerks after a long illness is part of a troubling trend, unfortunately, that we have recently experienced as the region sees the virus resurging,” Wiedefeld said.

Transit officials said Metro’s Office of Occupational Health and Wellness made notifications to workers who had been in close contact with the employee. Joseph Reid, a manager in the Rail Operations Control Center who died in August, was Metro’s first virus-related fatality.

Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said of the agency’s 12,000 employees, 435 have tested positive during the pandemic and 408 have returned to work.

As it navigates the budget shortfall, Metro is using funds from $767 million it received from the federal Cares Act pandemic relief plan, which Congress approved in the spring. In September, Metro projected the money would run out by January, but belt-tightening and lower-than-expected service demands and fuel costs have allowed the aid to stretch until March.

Metro moves toward service cuts as talks stall on coronavirus aid bill

In recent months, transit agencies across the country have been awaiting a second federal stimulus to carry them through the pandemic. The American Public Transportation Association has lobbied for $32 billion from Congress, $7 billion more than what the Cares Act provided transit organizations. But Congress has shown no signs of negotiating an agreement during its lame-duck session.

Metro’s fare revenue projections for the fiscal year that started July 1 continue to plummet. The agency expects to collect $183 million from fares — 78 percent less than what it projected before the pandemic.

Among the changes that will begin around January are less-frequent train service on weekdays and the reinstatement of fares on Metrobuses. Since the spring, riders have been required to board through rear doors, bypassing fareboxes, to better protect drivers from exposure to the virus.

In January, bus operators will sit behind plastic shields, allowing for front-door boarding and fare collection to resume — a move that will provide $5.6 million in revenue for the remaining fiscal year.

Metrobus riders required to board from rear doors, making rides essentially free

Service cuts will not include closing Metrorail two hours earlier, which was part of the agency’s initial plan. The agency also will not cut back on station managers or reduce the number of trains serving the Maryland suburbs. Metro decided to pull back on those proposals after receiving more than 5,000 public comments and because its financial outlook has improved since September.

The agency says it’s unclear how many employees will take a buyout. About 2,000 are eligible for retirement, but Metro officials don’t expect enough will take it to avoid layoffs.

“It’s really hard to say,” Smedberg said. “It’s obviously going to be an individual’s own choice as to whether or not they do.”

In the meantime, vacant positions that don’t detract from public safety are staying unfilled, he said. Any layoffs will start with non-unionized employees, who are also forgoing raises this year, Metro officials said.

A week after restoring nearly full service, Metro faces possibility of budget cuts

Also on Thursday, board members heard a discussion on making transit more equitable for the region’s riders. Part of the discussion included transitioning the agency’s bus fleet to electric — which the Sierra Club has said the agency has lagged behind others in adopting. While Metro has committed to having a “zero-emissions” fleet, it has not announced a timetable.

Board members said they, too, want to see a firmer and more aggressive commitment.

“Transportation has become the dirtiest sector as it relates to the impacts of pollution and greenhouse gas nationally . . . As I hear about the costs and the upfront cost that is required in terms of the capital investment — to be able to both modernize our fleet, but also ensure that it’s no longer causing harm — I’m also thinking about the long-term benefits for the region,” board member Stephanie Gidigbi said.

Metro, other transit providers plead for funding in second federal coronavirus package

Goldman agreed, saying long-term costs to maintain electric buses, as well as the lack of fuel costs, would make up for the large front-end costs of buying the buses.

He encouraged Metro staff members to be more “aggressive” and bring a plan to the board that might transform Metro’s fleet to fully electric by 2035.