The budget slashing comes as hopes for a coronavirus relief bill dim. Transit agencies across the country have been surviving off $25 billion in federal aid for public transportation from the $2 trillion Cares Act that was approved in March. But that money is running out.
In Metro’s case, the $767 million it received from the stimulus helped withstand an operating deficit that was growing by about $2 million dollars a weekday as ridership declined with the region’s shutdown in March. Metro officials said the money will run out by the end of the year.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said he hopes to limit layoffs of the nearly 13,000-person workforce. He said he will freeze as many open positions as possible. Layoffs, should they occur, will start with non-unionized employees. But officials said unionized workers — the overwhelming majority at Metro — could see job losses, too. Labor agreements require 60 days of notice first.
Metro also plans to decrease service on its rails by about 25 percent compared to normal, pre-pandemic levels. The transit agency is deferring about $30 million in capital projects or programs, including the purchase of IT equipment, the installation of some digital screens at stations and the construction of a Metro Transit Police substation. Those cuts were chosen because they will not impact safety or the maintenance of multimillion-dollar improvements to platforms, tracks, stations and equipment, Metro officials said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro employees, called for public pressure on Congress to approve an aid package.
“Hundreds of transit workers have passed away from Covid-19,” the union said in a statement, referring to the disease the coronavirus causes. “This is no way to thank those that helped keep this country moving while everyone else was in lockdown. We know firsthand that layoffs and service cuts have permanent impacts on the health of the transit system. Underinvestment in transit takes years to recover from.”
To help raise revenue, Metro’s budget plan calls for reinstating fare collection on buses starting in January, which the agency said could raise about $5 million this fiscal year. Passengers have been riding free since late March, when Metro required everyone to board through buses’ rear doors — skipping the fare box — to keep drivers from coming into contact with passengers. Instead, the transit agency will rely on plastic shielding around drivers for a buffer.
Transit officials warn their subsidy-dependent industry will suffer irreparable harm without help. Some are delaying construction or maintenance projects crucial toward maintaining well-run systems. They also say their financial woes have a ripple effect on countless businesses and employment.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, the nation’s largest transit agency, said this week that its contracts with suppliers across multiple states are in jeopardy without an immediate $12 billion in federal aid.
“Let me be clear: federal funding for mass transit isn’t a red or blue issue — it’s a jobs issue,” MTA chief executive Patrick J. Foye said in a statement. “Our future — and the fate of approximately 100,000 MTA-created out-of-state jobs — rests squarely in the hands of the Senate and White House.”
The MTA said that it is preparing to make service cuts of up to 40 percent on subways and up to 50 percent on the Long Island and Metro-North railroads, and that it could lay off more than 8,000 workers.
Metro’s projected operating shortfall amounts to about 11 percent of its $2.08 billion operating budget and includes the unanticipated spending of $9 million for personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies.
Metrobus will be impacted less by the cuts than Metrorail because many bus riders have fewer transportation alternatives than people who ride the rail system, transit officials said. Bus routes and service will remain as they are.
Metrorail, however, will close two hours earlier, at 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Waits for trains will increase by about four minutes to 12 minutes on all lines except for much of the Red Line, which could see six-minute waits at the busiest times.
The plan causing the most strife among Metro board members includes the use of “turnbacks” on the Red and Yellow lines. Turnbacks cut trips short for half the trains on a line. Metro is proposing that half of trains in service would turn around at the Silver Spring and Grosvenor-Strathmore stations rather than continuing farther into the suburbs, where waits would be twice as long. Metro said the decision on where to truncate trips was based on stations with the least riders.
For years, Montgomery County riders and public officials despised the use of turnbacks and viewed it as an inequity. Metro stopped their use in 2019.
“The proposed reinstatement of Red Line turnbacks is still of concern for me, personally, and for riders in Montgomery County,” said Metro Second Vice Chair Michael Goldman, who represents the Maryland suburbs affected. “If the data does not justify more service for stations south of Grosvenor and Silver Spring, then I will be opposing the reestablishment of these Red Line turnbacks when the board has to vote to approve these proposed budget changes in November.”
Goldman said he insists that turnbacks at least be limited to certain times. He said the savings of less than $3 million doesn’t justify the inconvenience to Maryland riders.
“The savings resulting from the turn backs is minuscule,” he said.
Other board members, however, insisted that using ridership data was the most equitable way to make cuts.
“Moving forward, not knowing what the next several quarters are going to look like, if we’re going to do an effective job of right sizing, we have to do it using data,” said board member Devin Rouse, director of the Passenger Rail Division at the Federal Railroad Administration. “Let the data drive those decisions.”
Board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) agreed.
“There is no rider that’s more important than any other on our system,” he said. “And so when we look at these things, we have to make these based on data.”
Metro doesn’t expect to see an improvement in its finances during the second half of next year. The cuts are aimed at putting Metro on more austere footing when the start of the next fiscal year begins in July.
Metro is projecting revenue losses of as much as $569 million below pre-pandemic levels next year, with labor and other expenses costing as much as $50 million.
The transit agency said it could be facing a $793 million shortfall next year, which will require more cuts to “close the funding gap,” according to Metro’s budget projections.
Before the Metro board finalizes the proposed service cuts this November, the public can weigh in on the service reductions, layoffs and other changes by writing to the board via Metro’s website.