Even before Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld releases his fiscal 2018 budget, some riders and elected officials are crying foul about a cost-cutting proposal because it would disproportionately affect communities of color.
The idea — presented to the Metro board last week among several ways to close a projected $275 million budget shortfall — would shutter 20 of some of the lowest-performing stations during non-peak hours.
The presentation included a map of the stations, which are split about evenly among the District, Maryland and Virginia.
But many of the stations are clustered on the eastern ends of the Silver, Blue, Orange and Green lines, in Prince George’s County and east of the Anacostia River in the District. In fact, about half are east of the Anacostia.
“I saw that map, and my jaw hit the floor,” said Justin A. Lini, a 36-year-old D.C. resident whose home station is Minnesota Avenue, one of the stations on the list. “I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.”
In short, the stations appear to be clustered in communities of color in Northeast and Southeast Washington, as well as Prince George’s County.
“Immediately, I thought of the racial inequality the map showed,” said Lini, who is an Advisory Neighborhood commissioner. “If you took a map of the city’s African American communities and overlaid it on a map of these station closures, it would be a 100 percent match.”
On Monday, Metro said it considered the map purely “illustrative” and one of several “hypothetical scenarios for addressing next year’s budget gap.”
The presentation also included information on savings that could be gained by raising fares, eliminating bus routes and increasing the headway (or time) between trains.
Lini said some Metro customers who live on the eastern ends of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines have abandoned the system because of irregular service, especially on weekends. Many residents opt for buses that are slower but cheaper and more reliable. Cutting off-peak service would further send a message that their communities are not a priority for Metro.
These are communities that historically have been underserved by transit. And CityLab noted that “Metro’s own data show that Metrorail passengers who make less than $30,000 a year are more likely to ride during off hours.”
Others suggested that Metro put the drastic suggestion out there in an effort to squeeze more money from the District, Maryland and Virginia to help make up the budget gap.
“What’s really upsetting about this is that it feels like we’re getting thrown out there as a bargaining chip,” Lini said.
Some Metro board members were equally appalled by the optics.
But Metro could have a worse problem than optics if it tries to implement the off-peak closures.
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, transit agencies enacting such significant changes in service must prepare an “equity analysis” — a report that outlines the way that proposed changes would affect riders, and what types of riders would bear the greatest costs. And there’s a long history of civil rights lawsuits and federal complaints aimed at transit agencies that disproportionately affected poor communities or black communities with their service cuts.
In 2012, the federal government ordered the Los Angeles transit system to conduct such a review of its proposal to cut bus service.
Metro spokesman Richard Jordan said any Metro proposal “would be subject to a full Title VI analysis to evaluate the impact on low-income and minority communities before consideration.”
Prince George’s County Council member Todd M. Turner (D-Bowie) said that he is concerned about the potential effects of any service cuts on his constituents but that it’s premature to make any assumptions about Metro’s final budget-balancing plan.
“Obviously, there’s a concern to make sure there’s equity across the entire system as part of any review related to budget matters,” said Turner, who chairs the council’s Transportation, Housing and Environment Committee. “We’re going to keep an eye on it.”
Dennis Anosike, Metro’s chief financial officer, said the map “just identifies some options” of what service cuts may likely be on the table.
Metro board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s, said he was “troubled” by Metro’s lack of data to support such closures. He requested more information about the potential impact and the projected savings.
“You’re making these kinds of proposals — they have a real chilling impact on people, without a doubt,” Augustine said after last week’s meeting. “I mean, this is serious — you can’t just put information out there, something as serious as that, and not have some real numbers . . . [that say] this is what the impact is going to be. That’s what I’m deeply concerned with.”
Augustine said he isn’t opposed to making tough decisions in budget season, but he needs more information than just a map.
“Listen, I know it’s going to be some shared pain. We’re going to have to deal with that,” he said. “All I’m suggesting is, we be really clear and very cautious with what we’re doing because this is serious. This is very serious to people. You can’t just put things out there, talking about you’re going to close stations, and not have something to back it up.”
Board member Catherine Hudgins, who also is a Fairfax County supervisor, said she understands that the agency needs to look at making operations more efficient, but not to the detriment of riders who rely on the service.
“We’ve understood that people don’t go to Arlington Cemetery all the time. Guess what, the train passes through there often during the day,” Hudgins said. “There may be other options somewhere in the system, if it’s going to help us save maintenance and employee costs — that’s savings and that gets us a chance to look at the budget.”
Asked whether the proposed closures disproportionately target communities of color, she hedged.
“It just depends. I look at [the 20 stations] and I say ‘Okay, they probably are in one part (of town),’ ” Hudgins said. “I guess what we need to know is, what is the reason? Is there under-
utilization? Let’s talk about that.”
Wiedefeld is expected to release his proposed budget next month.
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.