The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Metro slides toward a budgetary cliff

A Metro train pulls up to the Naylor Road Metro station with the Suitland Parkway in the background. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Washington’s transit system has been kept alive during the pandemic, barely, thanks to federal relief funds. That life support — about $1 billion in the current fiscal year, split about equally between operating and capital funds — will run dry next year. So local leaders should be scrambling to find ways to sustain Metro, whose good health is a precondition for the Washington region’s post-covid rebound.

Unfortunately, there’s little sign of urgency.

There is talk of increasing the subsidies Virginia, Maryland and D.C. provide for Metro. But so far, it’s mostly just that: talk.

In Virginia, whose economic vibrancy depends heavily on precisely the areas served by Metro, no legislation was offered during the General Assembly’s two-month session, which began just before Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office in January. Mr. Youngkin, although he campaigned on his determination to juice the state’s economy, has not addressed Metro’s ills, and key Northern Virginia lawmakers say the question of increasing the subsidy will have to wait until next year.

In Maryland, a bill that would automatically increase the state’s annual Metro funding by 3 percent — starting in fiscal 2028 — linked that bump to Virginia doing the same. Which it hasn’t. But even that move in Annapolis, anemic as it was, fell apart amid squabbling between Democrats in the state Senate and House of Delegates. One senator, Malcolm L. Augustine of Prince George’s County, even introduced a budget amendment that threatened to slash Maryland’s Metro funding by nearly $30 million. He was irked that Metro’s new, $70 million rail car plant will be located in Hagerstown, about 50 miles northwest of Metro’s service area, and wanted a report explaining how it would provide local economic benefit to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where the transit system operates.

The District, to its credit, committed to automatic annual increases in its subsidy for construction, renovations and other capital expenses in 2018, when the three jurisdictions agreed to a $5 billion program of upgrades for Metro over 10 years. But that annual increase, designed to keep abreast of inflation, was suspended during the pandemic and has not been renewed.

Metro’s prospects are bleak. Ridership is climbing but is still down by two-thirds from pre-pandemic levels. Subway operating revenue, driven largely by passenger fares, was more than $530 million in the fiscal year before the pandemic; in the current year, it will not reach $100 million. No strong recovery in that income stream is likely until federal workers return to their offices, the prospects of which remain uncertain.

Metro has developed an ambitious program to accelerate deals to build offices and housing on 20 properties it owns around subway stations throughout the region. That effort might deliver a range of benefits — tens of millions of dollars annually from leases; new apartments that would generate millions of additional bus and subway trips, and the attendant fare revenue increases. But all that is far in the future, and speculative. In the here and now, Metro projects a $300 million funding gap by summer 2023, when federal relief funds will have been spent, meaning it will be forced to implement sharp service cuts. What then?