Metro officials say a map of potential service cuts that appeared to disproportionately target communities of color was never a serious proposal. So why release it in the first place?
The move baffled — and angered — many in the region, including Metro board members, transit advocates and residents who would be affected by such cuts.
The idea, presented to Metro’s board earlier this month as a possible remedy for a projected $275 million budget shortfall, would close 20 of the least-used stations during midday periods and late evenings.
But riders and advocates were quick to notice that about half of the stations were in Northeast and Southeast Washington, and Prince George’s County — east of the Anacostia River, areas with large concentrations of poor and low-income residents. These residents, many of whom rely on public transportation, already have few transit options.
On Thursday, as Metro held a 9 1 /2-hour hearing on its plan to slash late-night service to give maintenance crews more time to perform needed repairs, much of the testimony centered instead on the possibility of the station closures. Residents were livid.
Things got so heated that Metro officials had to clarify the hearing was about late-night service cuts — not possible station closures.
“You sit and you go . . . ‘Really?’ ” said D.C. resident Greg Rhett, a health insurance broker who lives in Ward 7 and attended the hearing. “You had a management team, and you let this get out the door?”
Following the backlash, Metro said the map was meant only to illustrate the transit agency’s dire financial situation. But critics questioned the wisdom of circulating the idea if there was no formal proposal. Some said it was merely an attempt to threaten the District, Maryland and Virginia to contribute more money to close the budget gap.
It also was another example of what many describe as the agency’s ongoing lack of transparency and problems communicating with its customers.
For example, following criticism from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and others that the agency had not made the case for why it needed more track time, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld conceded that he had not done a good job communicating the agency’s position.
“That’s what I’ve got to work on,” Wiedefeld said last week. “So we will do that. We’re going to be coming out with things that further support what we’re trying to do, why we’re proposing this.”
Later, he added: “It’s complex — and I’m not good at it — it’s complex to explain what we do.”
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans applauded riders for taking a stand but said he had no problem with Wiedefeld’s decision to use the map as a way to illustrate the budget realities facing the troubled system.
“What Paul is trying to do is say, ‘Okay, if the jurisdictions don’t put the money [to cover the budget shortfall] in, then we have to do service cuts,’ ” Evans said. “And what do service cuts mean? . . . It means no bus routes, it means no stopping trains at the lowest-attended stations. That’s service cuts. Service cuts are painful. They’re not abstract.”
Lessie Henderson, a transit advocate in Prince George’s County, called the proposed cuts “disgraceful,” referring, in part, to the station closures. And in a letter to Metro last week, Bowser said she was “concerned” by what she called a proposal to reduce operating hours at 20 stations.
“That’s not something we are taking through a public process right now,” board member Leif Dormsjo told the speakers.
Dormsjo admitted that Metro’s decision to publicize possible station closures caught him off guard.
“I found the map surprising at the time that it was introduced, and I think it contributes to people’s suspicion that Metro doesn’t have people’s best interests in mind,” he said. “I think that was probably a good indication of how serious the reaction would be to such a concept, if it was something that management was recommending.”
Wiedefeld is expected to release his budget proposal in November.
Dormsjo’s reaction was more tempered than those of other board members. Board member Malcolm Augustine said floating such proposals was dangerous.
“They have a real chilling impact on people, without a doubt,” Augustine said after a meeting where the idea was presented. “I mean, this is serious — you can’t just put information out there, something as serious as that, and not have some real numbers . . . [that say] this is what the impact is going to be. That’s what I’m deeply concerned with.”
Henderson said she would have preferred that Metro refrain from releasing ideas that don’t rise to the level of formal proposals, thus leaving residents in the balance.
“To me, the bottom line is that if this wasn’t a real proposal then this is something that shouldn’t have come out quite yet,” she said. “It’s almost like, ‘Hey, we don’t care; this is what has to be done.’ Common sense should have said they would have gotten major pushback.”
Martine Powers contributed to this report.