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Opinion How Metro plans to gradually return to full service

A Metro Bus driver wears a protective mask on Wisconsin Avenue in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Paul J. Wiedefeld is general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Metro ridership has plummeted to historic lows and that’s a good thing — for now. Customers are making only essential trips to protect the health of everyone in the region. Planning for recovery from the covid-19 shutdown isn’t like reopening after a blizzard. This is not a “start your engines” moment. This principle guides our plans to implement phased recovery over the next 12 months.

Metro is utilizing about half of our front-line workforce as employees self-quarantine, nurse sick relatives, and provide child care and home-schooling. We have 81 confirmed covid-19 cases among our 12,000-member workforce, with two colleagues hospitalized. Twenty-six have already recovered. Partnering with union leaders has kept us at the forefront of our industry in safeguarding employees, who live in communities in the national capital region disproportionately impacted by the virus.

Safeguarding our employees is both the right thing to do and fundamental to our ability to serve the public. Metro is fragile, particularly so long as we lack access to frequent testing for our essential workers. While we have taken every possible precaution, the system remains vulnerable. In our rail traffic control centers, for example, controllers wear masks and alternate locations to enable disinfection between shifts. But if even a few people who work in proximity need to quarantine, Metro is vulnerable to shift-length closures.

Bus drivers are the largest segment of our workforce. Wearing masks and working modified schedules, they drive disinfected buses sitting behind Plexiglas shields. We have implemented rear-door-only boarding to reduce risks for drivers, who are permitted to bypass stops when buses become crowded by social-distancing standards. Still, bus drivers count for the highest number of quarantines among our workforce.

Our recovery plan, first and foremost, considers how to protect employees and customers. It complies with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and supports guidelines from regional leaders — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser — that are based on science and public health. Finally, it relies on ridership and economic projections analyzing several models of covid-19 peaks, testing availability, supply chains for cleaning products and protective equipment, and other variables beyond Metro’s control.

The plan also considers customers’ expectations. Our April survey of SmarTrip Cardholders found preferences for all passengers to wear masks, and for visible and frequent disinfecting of rail cars, buses and stations. Customers want plenty of room for social distancing when riding. These measures require fundamental changes to old practices. Until a vaccine is available, our customer experience can’t be what it was before the pandemic.

Social distancing requires capacity to stay ahead of rider demand. Metro must return gradually, in phases, just like the region. We expect each of our three planned phases to take more than two months to implement as we inspect tracks and equipment, develop connecting bus and rail schedules, allow 4,000 employees to select assignments, reprogram information systems, and install signage. Under new safety measures, work can take much longer than it used to.

Our recovery plan anticipates that when regional leaders move to the first phases of reopening, trains will run every 20 minutes. The first and eighth cars, which have been closed to passengers, will reopen. Buses will continue to operate on Sunday routes and schedules.

Depending on the timing of subsequent phases in Maryland, Virginia and the District, we will begin to reopen stations, increase train frequency and operate more bus routes later this summer and into the fall. Free, rear-door boarding of buses will continue subject to ongoing federal relief funding and jurisdictional support. We are taking advantage of lower ridership to continue needed repairs to protect the system, with brief station closures for track work in Maryland and the District, and platform rebuilding in Virginia.

This plan requires testing new products for cleaning trains, stations and buses throughout the day. We also must reimagine safer boarding. All customers will be required to wear face coverings to board trains and buses.

Metro’s actions alone will not be enough to protect riders. We need employers, including the federal government — the region’s largest employer — to maximize telework and stagger work hours for months to come. Metering the return of workers would better position Metro to provide safe service. If local jurisdictions were to declare emergency public corridors and enforce exclusive bus lanes, Metro would be able to cycle buses more efficiently, expanding capacity that would allow passengers to maintain social distancing.

Metro is proud to serve the region in a difficult time. Our board of directors understands the system’s value to the region’s mobility and economy. So does our congressional delegation, which deserves credit for the relief funding that has replaced fares, averted layoffs and kept us moving through the pandemic. With continued support from regional leaders, and a little grace from customers, we will keep people healthy and working as we gradually get back to full service.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this op-ed: Metro and other authorities need to reinvent mass transit

The Post’s View: Why transit must survive the virus

Fred Hiatt: Why do we put up with a transit system that kills, maims and wastes hours of our time?

Carol Park and Sean Kennedy: Stop throwing good taxpayer money after the Purple Line

Chris Christie: Five actions we need to take to restore the American way of life

The Post’s View: Is Metro finally turning a corner?

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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