After that, customers should brace for limited service indefinitely because of the likelihood of shrinking government tax subsidies and fare revenue, which officials think will remain depressed until there is a cure for the coronavirus or a widely available vaccine. The proposed cuts would mean longer wait times between trains and include moving up the system closing time to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.
“I think it is important to emphasize that this isn’t just for ’21, but also thinking ahead to ’22,” Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said of the upcoming fiscal years. “It will be equally as challenging, if not more so in many ways.”
The board will review the transit agency’s financial status at its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday. Any cuts are not expected to go into effect until January. The bottom line, officials said, is that riders can probably expect a service level equivalent to about 25 percent less than pre-pandemic — or normal — service.
News of the looming budget crisis came a day after the release of a withering 50-page audit by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission that highlighted major problems in Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center. The audit said the “toxic” environment in what is essentially the nerve center of the system included racial and sexual harassment, a lack of safety guidelines, managers who willfully ignored safety guidelines and directives and who were unwilling to change — all of which put passengers at risk. On Wednesday, Wiedefeld, in an email to employees, announced that the senior vice president for rail services had been reassigned while an outside law firm investigates allegations made in the audit.
Just last week, the transit agency was celebrating the long-awaited rollout of a mobile payment system and new app. The announcement of cuts also comes less than a month since nearly full rail and bus service was restored after being severely reduced in mid-March because of the pandemic.
Restoring service to near pre-pandemic levels came with the hope that Congress would provide Metro and the rest of the transit industry with another federal aid package. Lawmakers included $25 billion for transit in the $2 trillion Cares Act, of which Metro received $767 million. That money was used to help cover losses that had been growing by about $2 million a day because of fare revenue lost due to the pandemic and increases in the cost of cleaning and personal protective equipment for employees.
But that money will run out at the end of the year, Wiedefeld said. The nation’s transit agencies are seeking another package of at least $32 billion — of which Metro said it would seek $250 million. But the legislation is stalled in Congress.
“Right now, we do not see additional federal relief in the immediate horizon,” Wiedefeld said. “That could change, but right now we can’t assume that given some of the timelines that we have to work under.”
Budget projections for the rest of fiscal year 2021 are based on a $135 million cut in subsidies Metro receives from the District, Maryland and Virginia — money that is being covered by the federal stimulus aid. Smedberg said board members have been talking to the region’s elected officials and thus far, no additional decreases are expected this year.
Rail ridership has been increasing recently but remains about 90 percent lower than before the pandemic. Metrobus ridership is about two-thirds of what it was before mid-March. Wiedefeld said that most of the agency’s revenue comes from rail fares and that it does not anticipate much growth over the next several months.
In total, Metro is projecting fare revenue losses of $203 million compared to what it had budgeted for fiscal year 2021 before the pandemic. Another nearly $9 million will be spent on cleaning, disinfecting and employee protective equipment, which adds up to a $212 million deficit.
Some of the proposed cuts include postponing $30 million in capital projects. About $139 million could be saved through service adjustments, including delaying the opening of Phase 2 of the Silver Line until July 1, and reducing trains and operators by shortening some trips. For instance, Metro could run fewer Red Line trains from Grosvenor-Strathmore to Silver Spring and create a truncated Yellow Line start and end point at Mount Vernon Square.
Wait times between trains would increase by about four minutes on all lines except the Red Line. Trains would run every 10 minutes during peak periods and about every 12 minutes during other times.
The system closing time would move up by two hours to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursday, saving 10 hours a week.
Metro would also resume collecting Metrobus fares in January. The transit agency suspended fare collection early in the pandemic when it required passengers to board through the rear doors to keep operators isolated from riders. Metro officials said front-door boarding would resume and drivers would be protected by plastic shields.
Metro also plans to save nearly $43 million by reducing contracts with its paratransit provider, reducing the number of station managers on duty and laying off nonunion workers.
Wiedefeld said he plans to seek as much savings as he can by freezing and eliminating open positions and asking for early retirements to avoid layoffs. In total, he said, he needs to cut the equivalent of about 1,700 positions.
“Our approach that we’re going to take is to do as much as we can to not impact people that currently have jobs,” Wiedefeld said. “So you’re not taking any people that have a job today out of a job.”
Wiedefeld said he has no plans to lay off union employees, which make up the bulk of Metro’s more than 12,000-person workforce. Employees must be given 60 days’ notice of impending layoffs, according to Metro’s collective bargaining agreement.
The board is asking Metro to limit cuts to Metrobus, which serves the region’s lowest-income riders. They were among the hardest hit during service cuts instituted in mid-March, and board members have prioritized making sure the same long waits, crowded buses and lack of routes don’t affect service workers and those without other means of transportation.
Andrew Kierig, chairman of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, said he is glad Metro is prioritizing lower-income riders.
“We’re continuing to be particularly concerned about the impact cuts are going to have on lower-income communities that aren’t served by Metrorail,” Kierig said. “I was certainly heartened that they’re preserving levels of bus service. So that’s one good thing in all this.
“The rest of it’s pretty bad. I have to hope Congress gets their act together in just getting some more money flowing.”
Before making any service cuts, Wiedefeld said Metro will take public input on the plan.
Metro officials also continue to lobby for federal help. With more federal aid, much of the plan could be shelved, as could another round of belt-tightening for fiscal year 2022. Planning for the next fiscal year starts this fall, and officials said they are projecting an even grimmer budget that may need about $330 million in cuts — much of which would be achieved by cuts Metro is proposing now.
“I think it’s also important that we get a sense that this is not something that is turned around very quickly,” Wiedefeld said. “And I think other industries are wrestling with that same thing.”