Metro would close at 1 a.m. on weekends and 11:30 p.m. weeknights under a proposal being recommended to the agency’s board this week, an effort by General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to carve out more time for track work and respond to pleas to maintain some late-night service.
The proposal, which Metro acknowledges disproportionately impacts minorities and low-income riders, was the overwhelming preference among the “unprecedented” 16,000 public comments it received on the issue — selected by 45 percent of respondents, Metro said.
Under the recommendation, Metro would close at 11:30 p.m. weeknights and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday hours would be 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; the system would continue to open at 5 a.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. on Saturdays.
The proposal will be presented to the board at its Thursday meeting and have its first vote in a board committee.
Wiedefeld issued a moratorium on late-night service at the beginning of the agency’s SafeTrack maintenance program in June, with the understanding that it would resume with the end of the year-long project. However, Wiedefeld later proposed ending late-night service permanently to give workers eight more hours for critical track maintenance and inspections.
“The goal is to get into a healthy routine of preventive maintenance so that a disruptive emergency program like SafeTrack is not needed again,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said Monday.
Critics say the recommended proposal, which would end weekday service 30 minutes early and end the 3 a.m. weekend closings indefinitely, still would leave restaurant, hospitality and other workers scrambling for transportation to and from work, threatening their jobs and livelihoods. But some board members, acknowledging the need for more time to do track work and for a bolstered safety regimen, say they’re open to the reductions, provided they can be reexamined at a future date.
“Am I happy with it? The people I represent are not happy with it,” said the Metro board chairman, Jack Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member.
Still, Evans, whose Ward 2 council district is home to more of the city’s hotels and restaurants than any other ward, said that “there’s room for compromise . . . for a year.”
He and board member Corbett A. Price, who also represents the District, said they would support the staff recommendation provided any changes would terminate after a set date — possibly a year.
“It’ll be a certain date that the schedule will return to what we had prior to SafeTrack,” Price said.
The proposal, as written, calls for the new hours to be reevaluated after two years.
“Let the board look at it again at that point,” said Metro Board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland and is likely to support the proposal. He said the agency’s new safety oversight commission also should be up and running by that time.
The D.C. Council voted unanimously in October to urge Metro to restore late-night hours, and Evans hinted that D.C. members of the Metro board could use a jurisdictional veto to block any proposal that permanently slashed night-owl service.
On Monday, the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) released a statement saying the proposal unveiled falls short of expectations. Bowser and Evans plan to discuss the issue at Tuesday’s mayor-council breakfast.
“Our position on [Metro’s] late-night service has not changed: soon after SafeTrack, late night operations should resume,” the statement said. “As the nation’s capital and home to over 670,000 residents, we need a Metro system that works for everyone — residents, workers, employers and visitors. That means having a Metro that stays open late as the region continues to grow.”
Price later tweeted that he supports Bowser’s position, making it unclear how he will vote Thursday.
In a separate development, it was learned that Metro has sharply increased the amount of money it plans to seek from the District, Maryland and Virginia over the next three years to cover its budget shortfalls.
Metro will ask the District for $655.4 million more than the city has anticipated for fiscal 2018 through 2020, according to a letter from D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt to Bowser and the D.C. Council. Of the increase, $160.8 million is for operating expenses and $494.6 million is for equipment and other capital costs.
“The funding gap increases each year,” DeWitt said in the three-page letter. Part of the explanation for the deteriorating situation is that “ridership has declined and SafeTrack costs have increased above the original estimates,” it said.
The letter also said that Maryland and Virginia “face similar gaps between current funding levels for WMATA and WMATA requested funding level increases.” WMATA stands for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Metro’s formal title.
The disclosure confirmed worries that Metro’s financial woes would result in significant new demands for money in coming years from the state and local governments of the jurisdictions that Metro serves.
The District, Maryland and Virginia are struggling already to figure out how to cover Metro’s request that together they ante up an extra $130 million to help cover the transit system’s operating budget shortfall for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1. That represented an increase in the requested subsidy of 15 percent over the preceding year.
It is Metro’s need to keep on top of maintenance, however, that led to the recommendation to scale back late-night service, the agency said. It reviewed public responses, mostly from online surveys, but also paper surveys in stations and written and oral testimony. About 45 percent of respondents preferred the 1 a.m. closing to the other three options despite the fact that it both disparately affects and disproportionately burdens minority and low-income populations under a Title VI equity analysis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Metro argues, however, that the system’s urgent maintenance needs justify the reduced hours and that there is no less discriminatory alternative, allowing for an exception under the act.
“Metro believes that the least discriminatory option is Proposal 3, because it is overwhelmingly favored by both minority and low-income populations,” the agency said.
Critics however, say it’s inaccurate to use responses to the four proposals to gauge public support.
“If you give me four bad choices and I’m forced to pick one of the four, the one I pick doesn’t make it a good choice,” said John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer for Unite Here Local 25, which represents 7,000 restaurant, hospitality and cleaning workers in the region. “To provide a bad choice is the same as providing no viable choice at all.”
The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington worries that reduced service hours will stifle growth in the industry, which propelled the District’s restaurant scene to the ranks of the prestigious Michelin Guide for the first time this year.
‘We fear that reducing Metro’s hours of operation will slow the strong momentum among our local business at a time when we have the opportunity to thrive,” said Kathy Hollinger, the organization’s president and chief executive.
Opponents say the shortened hours will be an unmanageable burden on workers.
“We have people right now with a 12 o’clock cutoff that have to punch out and sprint, literally, to the Metro station to make the last train,” Boardman said. “If you take a half-hour off that, we’re done, we can’t make it.”
Metro says expanding its maintenance windows from 33 to 41 hours per week will permit the agency to “launch an aggressive, industry-grade maintenance program” that will allow a shift from emergency to preventive maintenance.
SafeTrack, the long-term maintenance program aimed at restoring the system to a state of good repair, was a step in that direction — imposing a moratorium on early openings and late closures for special events, and shuttering the system at midnight every day of the week.
Other proposals that had been floated by the agency included closing the system at midnight Monday through Saturday, but keeping early openings each day of the week; closing 30 minutes earlier on weekdays to keep the system open until 11:30 p.m. on Sundays; and keeping the system open until 3 a.m. on weekends, but delaying Sunday opening until noon.
The new hours, if approved, would go into effect in July. Goldman says he expects that the proposal will pass a committee vote Thursday. It would then go to the full board.
“At the board level, with the jurisdictional veto there, we can never predict,” he said.
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.