That question is critical because Metro’s fortunes are so tightly interwoven with the region’s economic and employment prospects. Neighborhoods in the city’s core and throughout the suburbs were revived and have prospered because of Metro, and are likely to wither if the subway’s comeback is anemic.
The agency’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, is planning for a gradual, step-by-step recovery that forecasts a return to pre-pandemic service levels only in the spring of 2021. Even that timeline may be too optimistic. Many businesses and employees nationwide, realizing that telework is a viable option, are reassessing the value of office work generally and commuting in particular. Workers whose offices do reopen may ask: Why take a chance on crowds in the subway when safe and secure social distancing is available in the form of a car?
Metro has its work cut out. To succeed, it will need to offer safe, reliable and affordable service, goals that have often proved elusive in the past. In addition, it must shore up finances that have been battered by the pandemic, and convince passengers that the subway is safe.
Solving the financial problem is largely a job for government. Metro is making relatively modest budget cuts — service upgrades are on hold, and $45 million in spending will be slashed through a hiring freeze, deferred purchasing and eliminating some jobs when they become vacant. But the main lifeline comes from the federal economic rescue package enacted in March, which includes some $1.2 billion for the system to replace lost passenger revenue in this fiscal year and next. The District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, which provide more than half of Metro’s annual operating budget, must also hold subsidies steady for the transit agency even as the downturn saps their own tax revenues.
More federal funding for transit systems has been proposed in Congress, but even if approved, it will only be a stopgap. In the longer term, safety will be key to luring back passengers — and that is mainly in Metro’s own hands. It is already laying plans for touchless fare payments and to maintain six feet between subway passengers by running long trains, calibrating how many people board each one, and marking the platforms and rail cars to indicate distance. The other key is cleaning and hygiene.
In Hong Kong, airport authorities have deployed cleaning robots and disinfection booths — ostentatious techno-means of showing travelers that the premises are immaculate. In Seoul’s subway system, drones are spraying disinfectant in overhead spaces that humans can’t easily reach. Whatever methods Metro selects, passengers will gain confidence only if they see frequent and thorough cleaning in action, and spotless surroundings. That would be a departure for any U.S. transit system. It will also be an indispensable one.