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Federal covid relief package could lift Metro through pandemic budget problems

Commuters wait for their trains at the Rosslyn Metro Station in February.
Commuters wait for their trains at the Rosslyn Metro Station in February. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The latest coronavirus aid package moving through Congress could be the final funding bridge that Metro and other transit agencies need to begin ramping up for riders they hope will return after being vaccinated, transportation officials say.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package the Senate passed Saturday and sent to the House for a vote as soon as Tuesday would provide transit agencies with $30.5 billion. The infusion would be the third injection of federal aid that transit agencies have received since the pandemic began last March.

The Washington metropolitan region was projected to receive $1.4 billion, according to Senate staffers. While the bulk of those funds would go to Metro, other transit systems in the region, including the Virginia Railway Express and MARC commuter rail systems, also would receive funds.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld told Prince George’s County Council members on Monday that he didn’t know how money much Metro would receive. Wiedefeld was presenting members with the transit agency’s budget plan for fiscal 2022, which begins in July.

As the agency’s financial situation stands, he said, Metro has enough money to keep operations stable until the end of the year.

Without the additional federal money, he said, Metro would face a nearly $200 million shortfall beginning in 2022, which would trigger severe cuts to bus and rail service, including the closing of several stations.

Metro is planning normal service this year, but hoping for a cash infusion in 2022

Council members asked Wiedefeld if the latest stimulus proposal would stave off those cuts.

“Would that suffice to meet the gap with what you’re trying to do with service cuts you’re looking at?” asked Council member Todd M. Turner (D-District 4).

“We don’t know exactly what that means yet,” Wiedefeld responded. “As soon as we know more, we will be communicating that.”

While Wiedefeld was reserved about the bill’s potential boosts, Ian Jannetta, a spokesman for the transit system, said Metro is “encouraged” by the amount of money included for transit in the Senate bill.

The federal money has kept transit systems across the country afloat as they struggle with historic losses of passengers and fare revenue amid changes in commuting patterns, job losses, and office and school closures.

Metro to reduce train frequencies during peak periods as pandemic patterns evolve

The proposed stimulus comes more than two months after Congress passed a coronavirus relief bill that provided $14 billion for transit. That money came as transit agencies, including Metro, were proposing drastic service cuts, having nearly exhausted their first round of federal emergency funding.

Even with two rounds of federal aid last year, the American Public Transportation Association estimated public transit agencies still will face $39.3 billion of additional costs and revenue losses through 2023.

The latest proposal would give the nation’s 15 largest transit systems enough funding to make up nearly half of their annual operating budgets, according to Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation.

For agencies such as Metro and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, the stimulus should be enough to propel agencies into next year as coronavirus vaccines continue to be rolled out in greater numbers.

“I don’t want to see transit agencies like [Metro] have to permanently slash service because of the effects of the pandemic,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement. “These emergency relief funds will help prevent draconian service cuts and worker layoffs and ensure that Metro can keep operating to serve essential workers, federal government employees, and others who continue to depend on public transportation.”

Metro board expresses wariness over increased debt but gives tentative approval

MTA officials said Monday that the agency expects to receive about $6 billion from the rescue plan.

“Critically, it will also further offset covid’s impact and help protect against devastating service cuts and layoffs in the years ahead where we still face deficits,” MTA Chairman Patrick J. Foye said in a statement.

Other regional transit agencies across the country, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in the Boston area and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco area, indicated they would wait until the bill passed — and until they know how much money their agency would receive — before speculating on whether the stimulus would carry them through the pandemic.

Metro expects to receive $610 million in federal stimulus, avoiding cuts to service

The MBTA is facing a $35 million shortfall at the end of this fiscal year, according to a budget outlook presented to board members Monday.

Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for the BART system, said the latest stimulus plan is expected to provide that region with $1.7 billion for public transit.

“We don’t yet know how much of that amount BART will get,” she said. “Knowing additional relief is possibly on the way helps us avoid layoffs while developing our next budget.”

Lori Aratani contributed to this report.