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Metro doubles service as region tries to bounce back from pandemic, but will riders be there?

Frank Bello, 37, rides the Metro from the Ballston-MU station on May 20.
Frank Bello, 37, rides the Metro from the Ballston-MU station on May 20. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

Metro’s resumption of near-normal levels of service this week is occurring in a world that is anything but normal.

It’s a moment flush with contradictions for the nation’s third-busiest subway.

The transit agency is sharply increasing service despite the serious health dangers of the nation’s uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic, which is keeping worried potential riders home and off Metro if their livelihoods allow it.

The transit agency is preparing to spend tens of millions of dollars it does not have to bump up service and support an ongoing economic recovery effort, digging itself into a deeper financial hole, like other transit agencies across the country who have been financially ravaged by the pandemic. Estimating they are losing about $2 million each weekday, Metro officials said they will run out of funding before the year ends without a second federal bailout.

Metro moves forward with budget for new fiscal year amid pandemic uncertainty

While some public health and economic experts are calling for a new nationwide lockdown to try to subdue the coronavirus, Metro will be adding many more trains and running them much more frequently, ostensibly to move vastly larger numbers of people out in public.

Transit advocates and business leaders say they support Metro’s shift toward resuming full service, and they believe the transit system remains indispensable for many workers and the region’s future. They view the increase in service as in essence a preparatory exercise for a future beyond the health emergency when more people are being called to work in person.

“We’re getting mixed signals,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the panel’s transportation committee.

While Cheh supports Metro’s efforts to increase service, and the region has done well keeping cases down, “it’s a bit of a puzzle.”

“While you want to be ready when we do open up, and you do want to have people have confidence in the system, the other signal is maybe we’re encouraging people to come out too soon. There’s a tension there,” she said.

Metro service to significantly increase in August

Metro would have been unlikely to be increasing service right now if it weren’t for two things: the school calendar and a unionized workforce of at least 12,000. It’s such a large organization that Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has likened it to steering a battleship.

In May, Metro released a long-range recovery plan that was based on input from businesses, federal and local government officials and school leaders. A couple of months ago, as local government leaders loosened business and social restrictions and case counts declined, the transit agency planned for schools to reopen in the fall.

The District does not have a school bus system, and students rely on the city’s public transit system, which they ride free. Metro planned for tens of thousands of students to begin flooding the system. When Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced last month that D.C. schools would open the academic year online, Metro had already undertaken a complex negotiation with its transit union of assigning shifts and duties to employees.

With Metro experiencing small upticks in rider demand since June because of federal workers heading back to their offices, the agency is choosing to keep its new schedule in place.

If Metro is the large battleship Wiedefeld has described, “it has a very, very tiny rudder,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “It does not turn around very, very quickly or easily. And so that’s what we’ve got here.”

CDC adopts guidelines for transit reopening

Metro has never undertaken a service increase this dramatic since it opened 44 years ago. The upsurge follows unprecedented service cuts that corresponded with historic passenger losses.

The transit agency chose in mid-March to choke back train and bus service to bare minimum levels, strategically taking buses, trains and stations offline to limit the exposure of operators and other employees to the novel coronavirus. The agency also overtly dissuaded riders from using transit except for essential needs, attempting to limit the crowding and conditions that might aid transmission of virus.

At one point over the past five months, Metro had closed nearly 30 of its 91 stations, several entrances to operating stations and more than 200 bus routes. The transit agency estimated that the system ran at a level of between 35 and 40 percent of what it had been before the pandemic.

Metro came under criticism for the plan, as it contributed to standing-room-only crowding on the busiest Metrobus routes. Other large transit agencies, such as the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in California, kept full service running until revenue losses forced them to pull back.

Transit workers are paying a heavy price during the pandemic

Metro’s plan called for the equivalent of about 85,000 riders a day on Metrobus. But more than 120,000 were riding on many weekdays. After Metro board members began raising concerns, the agency added 21 buses to the busier routes last month.

Metrorail, conversely, has not fielded many crowding complaints, with ridership down at least 90 percent of pre-pandemic rates on most days.

Even so, Metrorail will be first to experience service increases.

Beginning Sunday, Metrorail will return to regular opening times of 5 a.m. on weekdays, 7 a.m. on Saturdays and 8 a.m. on Sundays. The system will close at 11 p.m. every night, two hours later than it had been, Metro said.

Scheduled weekday rail trips will more than double from 511 to more than 1,200. The Silver Line, closed since Memorial Day for testing connected to an expansion, will reopen. And trains across the board will come as often as they did before the pandemic, the transit agency said.

All but four of Metro’s 91 stations will be open. The closed stations, all west of Ballston, are part of a platform replacement project and should reopen around Labor Day, Metro has said.

Buses come next. On Aug. 23, service will resume or expand on 174 of Metrobus’s more than 360 routes, with some opening as early as 4 a.m. and ending at midnight daily, Metro said. That will return weekday service to more than three-quarters of what it was before the pandemic.

Metrobus will double the number of buses on the road from 700 to 1,400, which the agency says will alleviate many of the overcrowding issues.

Metro prepares for transit service ramp-up

“It will certainly help anyone who has not been able to properly social distance,” Stessel said. “Without question, this is the largest service ramp-up in Metro history. And it’ll be of greatest benefit to bus customers.”

But the transit agency warned that riders will have to monitor conditions for themselves, and that there may be times when trains or buses appear too full.

“Social distancing is a goal that folks should make every effort to adhere to in as many ways and as many opportunities as possible,” Stessel said. “But it won’t always be possible on mass transit.”

Metro said social distancing cuts its capacity by about 80 percent, to just 20 to 25 people per rail car and 10 on each regular bus.

Many transit agencies have pointed to the effectiveness of ventilation systems on their rail cars, saying fewer riders makes social distancing easier. While New York’s MTA and California’s BART have been more open about their onboard ventilation systems, Metro has not released any information on how air moves on trains and buses.

Tracking coronavirus cases and deaths in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Both MTA and BART are trying out new air filters in their subway cars to see if they might help reduce the potential spread of the virus, according to both agencies. Metro has not announced any such trials, but Stessel said that air is replaced at a rate similar to that in New York subway cars, which MTA officials say takes roughly three minutes. BART cars replace air every 70 seconds.

Public confidence remains low. In a July survey of people who work in and around Tysons by the Tysons Partnership, fewer than 10 percent said they were comfortable using public transit; 50 percent said they wouldn’t use it until a coronavirus vaccine is available.

“There’s just a real hesitation about taking mass transit. People aren’t confident in being safe, even though Metro’s saying they’re taking all these precautions,” said Erin Weinstein, a vice president at the Greater Washington Partnership, a group of prominent employers across the region. The group just launched a survey to try to capture a finer-grained picture of those worries.

“How concerned is your organization about employee health, safety and COVID-19 transmission risks while riding public transit?” reads one question.

“How confident is your organization that local transit agencies will be able to . . . [l]imit crowding / enable social distancing,” reads another.

As rail service increases, and area companies and workers try to gauge how they might confidently and safely take the Metro, “we need to make sure we understand what’s happening within the system on an hourly basis,” said Joe McAndrew, the partnership’s director of transportation policy.

During first week of Metro’s mask policy most riders comply

The group said it is critical for Metro to release new kinds of ridership data to help potential customers avoid crowds, preferably on a near-real-time basis or at least each day. Metro said Friday there is not enough data for it to be meaningful, given current low ridership. At a prior board meeting, officials said Metro doesn’t have the ability to give customers information on how crowded cars, buses and station platforms are in real time.

To try to instill confidence, Metro plans to put out hand sanitizer stations, distribute masks, do more “deep cleanings,” and pilot the use of ultraviolet light to keep escalator handrails cleaner longer, officials said.

Some transportation officials, who strongly support transit yet respect the dangers of the virus, are left walking a fine line on public messaging, just as leaders in other parts of public life have struggled with framing the vastness of the fight against the deadly contagion.

Jeff Marootian, the District’s transportation director who also is an alternate Metro board member, offered praise for the transit agency’s safety efforts so far, both for its employees and the riding public. “I think they’ve done a very good job of honoring that commitment,” he said. But he sidestepped the question of whether this is the time for someone to hop back on Metro.

“We will continue to encourage everybody to use their best judgment, to maintain social distancing, to wear appropriate face coverings and to practice proper hygiene,” Marootian said.

Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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