Facing a nearly $500 million deficit, Metro is also proposing to cut 2,400 positions through attrition, buyouts and layoffs on top of 1,400 the agency is seeking to eliminate this year. Its 360-route service would be slashed by more than half as the agency raids its capital budget to keep up with preventive maintenance.
Nineteen stations would close and Metro workers might go without raises to save jobs.
The proposals released Monday are part of Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1. The agency is looking to cut $494.5 million from $1.945 billion in projected operating expenses — a gap so big it can be met only by shutting down weekend rail service, Wiedefeld said.
It’s a plight facing most public transportation agencies across the country, which have been pushed to the financial brink as the pandemic has destroyed their base of customers through high unemployment rates and work-from-home arrangements that have eliminated commuting for many workers. Others are reluctant to use public transportation for fear of contracting the contagious virus on buses or trains.
“When I talk to my peers, we’re all facing these almost terrible decisions together,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s like, how do we do this? It gets down, unfortunately, to very hard math that you just can’t get there from here without having significant impacts.”
While transit agencies have for months sounded alarms to try to get Congress to swoop in with another round of stimulus money, Metro officials said Monday’s budget plan is not another warning but a realistic spending plan based on what it can control. There are few days left for Congress to act in a lame-duck session.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tweeted late Monday that the proposed cuts were “deeply troubling” and said it was a reminder of just how badly a federal stimulus package is needed. She called on the region’s leaders to work together toward a solution.
“Regardless of party or ideology, we must once again come together to save Metro,” she said.
Metro could roll back some of the cuts if lawmakers were to pass a stimulus plan next year. But, Wiedefeld said, ramping up service takes time — especially if Metro has shed hundreds or thousands of operators, controllers and other trained staff to cut costs.
“The thinking here is it’s a lot easier to pull back,” Wiedefeld said. “But if nothing occurs, we can’t put out there a budget that’s just unrealistic.”
But the plan, he said, isn’t based on Metro’s worst-case scenario. Metro predicts ridership will slowly increase by as much as 20 percent from current levels. Ridership on Metrobus last week hovered between 16 percent and 55 percent below pre-pandemic levels, while weekday trips were down between 77 percent and 86 percent on Metrorail. The agency expects ridership to rise gradually based on forecasts from the air, hotel and hospitality industries, as tourism drives a significant portion of Metro customers.
As a comparison, Metro had projected to make nearly $800 million in revenue this fiscal year, before the pandemic struck. Now, the transit agency is predicting revenue — including fares and parking — of $264 million next year — if ridership continues to grow.
“I don’t believe this is the worst-case scenario,” Wiedefeld said. “The reality is, the worst-case scenario is we stay where we are in terms of ridership. So we are projecting ridership to increase.”
Metro is also basing its budget on local and state governments providing the same amount they provided this year, plus 3 percent. That would account for $1.145 billion from Maryland, Virginia and the District toward Metro’s $1.945 billion in expected expenses.
But local governments are also struggling financially, as the pandemic has eaten away at tax revenue.
“That is a big ask for them,” Wiedefeld said. “They are under tremendous pressure. And obviously if we don’t get that, then we would have to make other adjustments to the budget.”
The outlook comes two weeks after the agency announced it would offer $15,000 buyouts to retirement-eligible employees, hoping to decrease the layoffs required as it cuts 1,400 jobs during this fiscal year to bridge a $176.5 million deficit. Metro initially had called for cutting service hours from Metrorail, reducing the number of managers staffed at stations and limiting the number of trains it sent to Maryland.
But many of those cuts were avoided because the agency stretched some of the remaining $767 million it received in the spring from the federal pandemic relief plan, known as the Cares Act, until March.
Metro will no longer have such aid to lean on in July, while it will have new obligations it must fund, including $36.5 million for setup needed to eventually begin operating the second phase of the Silver Line in Virginia.
The Silver Line is being built under the supervision of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority but is tentatively scheduled to be turned over to Metro later next year. Wiedefeld said eliminating that cost and postponing the line’s opening would be a “policy” decision that Metro’s board would have to take.
Metro is also expected to assume operations of the Cinderbed Road bus garage in Fairfax County at a cost of $3 million. The facility had been contracted out to a multinational transit company until its employees launched an 82-day strike last year for better benefits and raises. Metro ended the strike when it said it would not renew the contract, putting employees on the same pay scales and benefit packages as unionized Metro workers.
Metro is waiting to see how many employees accept buyouts before announcing layoffs to cut 3,800 positions. Wiedefeld said the layoffs are likely to include union and nonunion workers. Metro will postpone raises to nonunion workers, and Wiedefeld said he will negotiate withholding raises written into a collective bargaining agreement to union workers. That action would save the agency about $20 million, or 200 jobs, he said.
The agency is recommending moving $160 million from its capital budget to help pay for preventive maintenance.
Under the proposal, Metrorail would eliminate Saturday and Sunday service, while weekday wait times would be 30 minutes except in busier parts of the District. Metrorail would close two hours earlier, at 9 p.m., while fewer trains would service some Virginia stations. About one-fifth of Metro’s 91 stations would be shuttered.
Metrobus, meanwhile, would see a bare-bones schedule of less than half the routes it operated before the pandemic.
Metro’s board will discuss the plan Friday, the first step in the transit agency’s annual budgeting process. The board will schedule public hearings and accept public comments until February. The board will vote on the budget in March.
As this year has proved, the agency’s financial plan is a moving target. Since March, board members have voted to cut service as well as increase it, aided by money from the federal Cares Act.
The same could hold true again. Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said he is hopeful Congress will come to the rescue.
“They really want to see transit survive,” Smedberg said. “So they’re really concerned about this, obviously, and want to do everything that they can to support us given all the investment over the years, and decades, really, that this region and its elected leaders have put into this.”
But the budget plan also prepares for another reality that Wiedefeld said he has considered. Even if coronavirus vaccines end the pandemic, ridership might never return to pre-pandemic levels because some work arrangements will have been permanently altered.
“The other issue for us is even what the new normal looks like, particularly with teleworking and some of the things that are going on,” he said. “So we just can’t assume that we would get back to pre-pandemic levels because that [customer] base may just be totally different.”