The board’s approval Thursday sent the grim proposal to the public for review. The move gives riders, businesses and local governments time to lobby for bus routes and agency services they hope will be retained. If Congress or the incoming Biden administration were to provide federal aid, cuts could be rolled back, board members said.
Metro board Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Gidigbi, who represents the District on the board, and board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland, voted against the proposal. They said Metro should wait until January, when there would be more information on Congress’s intentions and vaccine distribution schedules, which could ease the pandemic and bring back riders.
Goldman said putting out a budget with such severe cuts will do irreparable harm to Metro’s image. The budget’s projections for ridership next year were too bleak, he said, and not based on when scientists say people might return to normal behavior.
“My prediction is that this doomsday budget will never be implemented for fiscal year ’22,” he said. “But the problem is to make it the focus of discussion and debate for the next four months will only discourage riders to return to the Metro system in the summer and fall.”
The vote formally opens a public comment period during three to four weeks beginning in mid-January. Metro will hold hearings to gather responses, then launch an outreach campaign to solicit more feedback. The board’s approval Thursday is a first step in an annual budget process that lasts until March, when the board is expected to approve the 2022 fiscal year budget.
The transit agency has estimated few ridership gains by July, when the new fiscal year starts. Metro is projecting a $494.5 million deficit.
Transit agencies across the country are hoping Congress will pass a second coronavirus relief aid package that includes at least $32 billion to help public transportation, but lawmakers have been unable to reach an agreement during a lame-duck session that is coming to a close.
Without aid, Metro has proposed eliminating weekend Metrorail service, while ending weekday service two hours early. Fewer trains would mean waits between 15 and 30 minutes. Metrobus routes would be cut by more than half.
The plans have shaken transit users across the Washington region.
“This is a mistake. We tried to warn them it was a mistake,” Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, which advises the board on riders’ issues, said on Twitter. “THERE IS NO REASON THIS CAN’T WAIT A MONTH.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said even if a bailout happens, Metro may still need to make cuts because the aid amount could be small.
“I think it’s important for the public to weigh in now so we can get a better sense of, with whatever limited dollars we may have, what can we bring back, where it makes the most sense, and again, trying to meet the public demand,” he said.
But the riders’ council, as well as local transit advocate James Pizzurro, pointed out the board on Thursday skipped over several submitted public comment emails and phone messages during the meeting and mistakenly replayed last month’s video report from the riders’ council.
“My colleagues and I give up a lot of time and energy to be as effective as we can,” said riders’ council chairman Andrew Kierig. “It’s like talking to a brick wall.”
Gidigbi pushed Metro to do more to gather public input on the sweeping service cuts than hosting three weeks of hearings and outreach.
“I hope that the general manager and the staff will really work to think about how we move beyond these three weeks, thinking [about] stakeholder feedback at every level, especially those who are most impacted by the system and these decisions and the cuts that we’re making,” she said.
Goldman said Metro last year delayed a similar vote to January, and wondered why officials couldn’t do the same during this year’s budget process.
“I have heard nothing which tells me or that convinces me that that wasn’t good strategy then, and that we shouldn’t wait for another month and do this in January this time,” he said.
Board chairman Paul C. Smedberg and members Gregory Slater, Matt Letourneau, Steve McMillin, Devin Rouse and Jeff Marootian voted in favor of pushing the budget forward.
Slater, also Maryland’s transportation secretary, said putting the plan out now gives the public more time to consider the proposals.
“It’s even more challenging in a remote environment, so we need to take that extra time to get that appropriate feedback,” he said. It’s important to me that we understand where their priorities are. . . . But, you know, in my mind, we have to always plan for the worst and adjust as things improve.”
Even as he voted for the proposal, Letourneau, a Loudoun County supervisor, noted that such serious cuts could prompt local governments that subsidize Metro to question that funding if service is curtailed so extensively.
“But the answer is, if we do want to recover as a region, Metro is absolutely critical to that. Metro is central to it,” he said, adding that Metro has been a factor in land use decisions across the region and along the Dulles Toll Road corridor, where Phase Two of the Silver Line is underway.
Board members Thursday also heard updates on the second phase of the Silver Line, which will extend into Loudoun County. The project, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, has seen delays over construction problems.
Metro staff members said they have identified at least 14 new significant issues that need to be fixed before they recommend that board members accept the project and begin service. None of the issues are functional, but they could affect durability and safety in the long term, a Metro staff member said.
While the authority could be ready to turn the project over to Metro in April, tentatively pushing a start date for service to the fall, Metro’s staff members said more work is needed to resolve the problems. The problems include cracked insulators that shield the electrified third rail, malfunctioning fans and noncompliant snow melters, according to a Metro report to the board.