“We understand that this will be a particularly challenging time for our partners as well, so we’re going to have to work together on this,” Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said.
The $3.9 billion budget, approved unanimously with board members meeting virtually, includes $2.1 billion for operating expenses and $1.8 billion for capital investment spending.
The budget does not include any projections or assumptions tied to the coronavirus outbreak or any anticipated long-term impacts for a number of reasons, officials said. However, the virus’s impact thus far has created a $67 million deficit for the transit agency, including $17 million in unanticipated expenses for gloves, sanitizer, disinfectants and other supplies the agency ordered to protect against the pandemic and $2.5 million a day in lost fare revenue due to service reductions, stay-at-home orders and general fear, according to General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.
Metro officials said they anticipate much, if not all those losses will be covered by the $25 billion Congress included for public transit in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package lawmakers passed last month. The Federal Transit Administration announced Thursday that the Washington region will receive $1 billion, but it wasn’t clear how much will go to Metro and other transit systems in the area, such as Montgomery County’s Ride On or the Fairfax Connector.
Wiedefeld said Metro is waiting on the FTA to lay out what costs the federal bailout money can be used to reimburse.
But it’s unknown how long travel will need to be restricted to fight the spread of the virus, and many transit experts have already said the $25 billion will not be enough federal aid.
It’s also unclear what impact widespread joblessness will pose for Metro. Labor Department numbers released Thursday showed that more than 250,000 jobless claims had been filed in the District, Maryland and Virginia as of March 28.
The shortfall local and state governments are facing continues to mount, and they have started making revenue projections that could impact Metro. Of the transit agency’s $2 billion operating budget for the coming fiscal year, nearly $1.25 billion comes from contributions from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“We are hearing now because of significant revenue shortfalls that they’re going to have difficulty paying the subsidies that are expected of them,” said Metro board member Matthew F. Letourneau, who also is a Loudoun County supervisor (R-Dulles). “We will be dealing with a very different ridership scenario and very different revenue projections.”
Board member Michael Goldman said members should expect to revisit their decision in June.
“We must be prepared to take a hard look at our budget initiatives in light of covid-19,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland.
Across the region, elected officials aren’t just calculating what subsidies they can afford, but all services.
The Montgomery County Council adopted a resolution last week asking the county executive to draw up a budget that essentially includes no growth.
“The pandemic has thrown uncertainty into every budget in the region,” council member Evan Glass (At-Large) said. “We have to be mindful of how this crisis is affecting everyone’s bottom line.”
“While we’re looking at a continuation of services at the current fiscal year, there is some concern that the economic situation may be far worse, and we may not be able to maintain the same level of service,” he said.
The council plans to approve its budget at the end of May, which should help Metro board members in their deliberations in June, Glass said.
Fairfax County Board Chairman Jeff C. McKay (D-At Large) said he cannot predict how much Metro’s subsidy would be affected because of his county’s financial woes.
“We hope to continue to support Metro as much as possible because it is a necessary service for the region,” he said in a statement. “It’s difficult to say what that commitment looks like at this moment until the County Executive provides an updated budget next week. Fairfax County like many others are seeing budget shortfalls due to losses in revenue streams like sales tax and property tax.
“Unfortunately, this uncertainty will continue as we learn about the true economic consequences covid-19 has had,” he added. “We are working to be flexible and alert as the changes come.”
At least for now, several initiatives that riders have wanted are included in the approved budget. The rail system will stay open longer, running until midnight Monday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. The transit agency will also offer a flat $2 weekend fare. The cost of a bus-to-rail transfer will be cut to 50 cents, and the agency will provide a bigger discount for weekly passes.
Metro also plans to shorten weekend wait times, cutting Red Line waits to six minutes from eight minutes on Sundays and to 12 minutes from 15 minutes on all other lines. Frequency will also increase on several Metrobus routes.
But the gains come with a 10-cent Metrorail fare hike, the first in three years, increasing the peak-hour base fare to $2.35. Nearly $7 million was cut from Metrobus, resulting in the elimination and consolidation of some routes.
The budget also includes $78.4 million to begin operation of the second phase of the Silver Line, which has been delayed two years and is now scheduled to open in April 2021. The budget assumes $5 million in fare revenue from the rail segment, based on an estimated 1,700 daily riders paying an average of $3.85.
But like everything else, that projection is now in question.
“The world that we’re in right now is a little bit upside down, and the world we’re going to see is going to have a lot of changing dynamics,” said Metro board member Gregory Slater, who also is Maryland transportation secretary. “Everything is going to be a little different.”