The task of balancing fiscal responsibility while protecting Metro from more ridership losses was evident Friday during a special finance committee meeting. Board members made their first public comments about Wiedefeld’s proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July.
Some Metro leaders said they preferred the agency lay out its grim outlook early so riders, businesses and local governments can brace for possible drastic cuts. Others said the message was too pessimistic, too soon, preferring to see whether Congress will come to the industry’s rescue. Some also wanted to delay decisions until seeing a detailed schedule of when coronavirus vaccines could be distributed in the region.
“Why can’t we give ourselves more time to ensure that we fully know where we are and still meet the deadlines that are being laid out?” Metro Board Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Gidigbi said. “Because I think we can do both.”
Wiedefeld’s proposed budget is the most severe contraction of the nation’s third-largest transit system in decades, calling for the elimination of weekend rail service, 15- and 30-minute waits for trains, shorter service hours and for the bus system to operate about 45 percent of its existing routes. Under the plan, Metro would lay off 2,400 workers on top of 1,400 it’s seeking to shed this year through attrition, buyouts and layoffs.
Wiedefeld has projected a $494.5 million deficit in Metro’s operating budget next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The funding gap — equivalent to one-fourth of what the agency spends each year — is driven by huge ridership losses from the pandemic that have decimated fare and parking revenue. Metro is projecting to earn about $265 million next year, up from $182 million this year, but it’s about 70 percent of what Metro took in annually before the pandemic.
Transit agencies across the country are hoping the federal government will provide a second aid deal that could help keep their systems operating at near-normal service levels through the pandemic. Congress is divided on whether transit should be included in a second stimulus package, and there are about two weeks left in a lame-duck session for lawmakers to reach a resolution.
Metro’s annual budget preparations typically start in November and last until March, prompting the transit agency to begin planning now.
“We have come up with a plan that is going to be tough medicine for many of our stakeholders, but we have a responsibility to budget with the dollars we have available and provide the most logical and meaningful service that we can,” said Steve McMillin, who chairs the board’s finance committee.
Transit agencies are preparing for shortfalls in different ways.
The nation’s largest transit system, in New York, is proposing to cut subway, commuter rail and bus service between 40 and 50 percent while it borrows billions of dollars from the Federal Reserve. Chicago’s transit system, meanwhile, passed a budget last month that doesn’t cut services or raise fares, moving forward under the assumption that the federal government will provide aid.
Wiedefeld said he put out a realistic budget plan to give local and state governments that subsidize Metro the information they need to craft budgets while also giving the public months to provide input on what services to prioritize.
“This is something that we want some give and take and back and forth to see what makes the most sense,” he said.
But Gidigbi, who represents the District on the board, said she preferred for Metro to wait until January to see whether Congress will act.
“I’m just wondering, can we take a moment to just ensure that we have all of the opportunities and options on the table as the Senate and Congress goes into lame duck?” she asked. “Why do we have to go to public comment in December? Can we wait until January?”
She said the bare-bones service plan released this week sends the wrong message, likely to drive riders away at a time when Metro needs them most. The plan also works against progress Metro has made in building back its reputation after years of multimillion-dollar investments to improve safety, reliability and performance, Gidigbi said.
“I think it’s important for us to really amplify and share the message that we’ve been working to build back better for the return of riders,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to tell that story versus letting folks have to plan for the reality that you won’t be able to get anywhere on the weekends or at night. That’s not the right message for this moment.”
Gidigbi said the skeletal schedule could also push more people into vehicles.
Metro board member Michael Goldman said he also objected to presenting the plan to the public.
“You’ve produced something which is inedible, and inedible to the point that I wouldn’t want to put it out to the public for comment at this time,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland on the board. “I think the ridership revenue forecast for fiscal year ’22, as I’ve said before, is too conservative, causes too much pain.”
Wiedefeld has predicted ridership will increase about 20 percent next year but Goldman said he believes it will increase more, based on when officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said vaccines will reach the general public.
“I think ridership and revenue should be recovering by July,” he said. “I think we should now be following the science, and the scientists seem to be telling us that things are going to be a lot better by next summer, the start of this fiscal year, and we should reflect that optimism or that more realistic forecast.”
Goldman said increased ridership projections could stem the need to shut down the rail system on weekends, giving Metro “a pattern of service that encourages riders to use the system again” when the pandemic ends.
He proposed that Metro raise more money by charging peak fares on Metrorail all the time.
Other board members said their colleagues were leaving too much to assumptions outside of Metro’s control — such as a congressional bailout or vaccine timeline — which they said isn’t good fiscal sense. Matthew F. Letourneau said he objected to the “tenor” of the discussion, which seemed to target Wiedefeld when board members unanimously told the general manager to draw up a conservative spending plan.
Letourneau, who also is a Loudoun County supervisor, said he agreed with Wiedefeld that local and state governments want Metro’s financial outlook as early as possible as they wrestle with their own budget shortfalls.
“This is not ‘SimCity’ and we can’t just print money and assume money that is not there,” he said, referencing a video game. “I don’t necessarily have quite the level of optimism that others do about the ability of Congress to act quickly, to deliver funding to us in time for our fiscal year.”
Friday’s discussion was the first step in Metro’s annual three-month budgeting process. Board members next week will vote to create public hearings so residents can provide input on the proposed budget, then a final vote is expected in March.