The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C.’s Metro must up its game. The region’s prosperity depends on it.

A person at the Gallery Place/Chinatown metro station in D.C. on April 8. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)

Among the casualties of long-haul covid are the United States’ transit agencies, whose depleted riderships may take years to return to pre-pandemic levels. Passenger counts remain severely depressed, and the prognosis is for a protracted recovery. At D.C.’s Metro system, which serves the capital and its suburbs, officials project that rail ridership, now scarcely a quarter of what it was before the coronavirus struck, will recover to just 75 percent of 2019 numbers — by 2024.

That’s a grim scenario; it might also be realistic. Given the vagaries of variants, shifting work and commuting patterns, and other hard-to-pin-down factors, passenger forecasts are largely guesswork. For now, Metro is doing practically everything it can think of to lure back riders, having hoped that many commuters would return after Labor Day when federal and private employers would resume at least partial in-office work. In many cases, those return dates have been postponed owing to the delta-driven spike in infections.

Metro’s strategy seems sound. It combines improved service — shorter wait times for buses and trains, longer operating hours, and the long-elusive promise of reliable escalators — with lower fares, including cheap (and flat) rail fares on weekends and free transfers between buses and trains. Even with a fraction of its hoped-for passenger loads, Metro will offer nearly the number and frequency of trains and buses after Labor Day as it did in the Before Times. Officials hope those inducements, plus the pledge of efficient onboard train air filtration and thorough cleanings, are the ticket to restoring ridership.

Transit outfits nationwide are operating on borrowed time, thanks to massive federal stimulus funds that averted a near-complete halt in service. Metro, with an annual budget of roughly $2 billion, has received nearly $1.9 billion from the pandemic rescue packages; of that amount, about half remains. That cushion will be enough to keep the trains and buses running on a robust schedule for another two years, after which the picture gets cloudy.

Metro’s health is key to the Washington area’s own long-term economic recovery. With that in mind, there are steps the transit agency and its stakeholder jurisdictions should consider. One is a variation on a measure D.C. lawmakers were considering right before the pandemic hit: a program that would extend a $100 monthly credit to District residents who have SmarTrip cards and don’t already ride free (as, for instance, most students do) or receive a commuter subsidy (as federal workers do). The proposal in the D.C. Council went too far — it would have subsidized riders who hardly needed a handout, including the city’s nearly 30,000 millionaire households. But a more targeted, smarter approach could support both Metro and needy Washingtonians. A model adopted by New York City made half-price Metro cards available to residents with incomes below the poverty line.

Beyond that, the reprieve represented by the federal government’s rescue funds are an opportunity for Metro to raise its game. Smoother, more reliable service is the best way to convince customers that Metro is what it needs to be: essential.