That’s especially true on Metrorail, where daily passenger trips are about 85 percent lower than before the pandemic. The transit agency expects that number to rise, but it also is bracing for the likelihood that many downtown office workers won’t return to their earlier commuting routines as employers give workers flexibility to stay home after more than a year from the office.
The ramifications of an altered Washington commute on Metro’s budget are significant, as 80 percent of the system’s revenue comes from Metrorail fares.
Board members floated lower fares as a way to entice more riders to the rails.
"We need to give our riders some incentives to return to the system, and specifically Metrorail in the fall," Metro board member Michael Goldman said. "Let's try to do some things. We're not going to know whether they're going to work, but I think we need to try to do some things on an experimental pilot basis to try and resuscitate demand."
The agency is temporarily relying on an infusion of federal stimulus money to bridge the hundreds of millions of dollars in lost fares. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill last month gave Metro more than a year’s worth of financial cushion, but leaders say they need to gain back future riders who are working from home or might opt for other modes of travel.
Goldman asked board members to consider a temporary fare discount starting after Labor Day, when many companies are planning for workers to return to the office. He proposed a standard all-day fare, rather than a cost that fluctuates based on peak commuting times.
Goldman said Metro also could consider fares based on a zone system, suggesting that trips in the District cost $2, while rides within the Beltway would cost $3. Trips outside the Beltway could cost $3.85, he said.
The majority of rail riders pay more than $2 a trip now, according to Metro data.
Goldman also suggested that Metro waive or discount daily parking rates at its lots and garages. The incentives would last through the end of November.
“I think we need to get riders back on the rails and not staying home, not driving to work — because that is an option come fall when people go back to work,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to our pre-covid levels, but even if we only get back to 80, 85 percent, let alone 90 percent, it’ll be a big improvement.”
Board members are expected to continue discussions later this month on possible fare reductions. The proposals come amid signs that commuters are considering shifting away from mass transit when they return to office buildings.
According to a recent survey of 2,400 residents by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board, 16 percent of area residents said they telecommuted at least once per week before the pandemic. That number increased to 60 percent during the pandemic. Post-pandemic, 33 percent said they expected to telecommute at least once a week.
Nearly 40 percent of respondents said they would use public transportation less than before the pandemic.
A possible lowering of fares is a sharp reversal from before the pandemic. Metro had been considering its first fare increase in three years to help expand late-night service hours in response to rising customer demand.
The pandemic forced transit officials to shelve those plans, but flat fares, similar to what Goldman proposed, as well as the elimination of a $1.50 fee that Metro charges when riders transfer between Metrobus and Metrorail, nearly came to fruition.
Metro Board Vice Chair Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins said if the transit system is considering incentives to lure riders back, she wants the transfer fee eliminated. She said she was open to revising fares but cast doubt on the timing amid budget planning.
“I do think that there is an overall fare policy discussion that does need to happen,” she said. “I’m not sure that we’ll be able to get there in two weeks.”
Steve McMillin, chairman of Metro’s finance committee, also expressed support for considering fare changes.
“I agree that fare policy is a piece that we should consider in the context of growing the ridership again and building service back,” he said.
Metro officials also presented board members Thursday with a new budget plan for fiscal year 2022 that includes the latest round of stimulus money, allowing the agency to avoid drastic proposed cuts. The Federal Transit Administration has yet to determine how much Metro and other transit agencies will receive from the $30.5 billion the American Rescue Plan Act devoted to transit nationally, but about $1.4 billion is expected to come to the Washington region.
Metro hasn’t been told how much of that will go to the agency. If federal transit officials use the same formula to parcel out funding as in the prior two stimulus disbursements, the agency could end up with about $1 billion — enough to carry Metro well into 2022, Metro officials said.
With that knowledge, board members on Metro’s finance and capital committee approved a $4.7 billion operating and capital budget. The spending plan will maintain current Metrorail and Metrobus service — about 80 to 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels — until at least June 30, 2022.
The $2.07 billion operating portion of the budget relies on $722 million in federal relief funding, including $193.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. Without it, Metro had been planning to close 22 stations, cut Metrobus service in half, eliminate weekend Metrorail service and lay off thousands of workers. All of those plans were scrapped, officials said.
The new budget also includes money to operate the second phase of the long-delayed Silver Line, which could open in February, and the new Potomac Yard Metro station, expected to open next year. A final vote on the revised budget plan is expected April 22.