And a robust rebound in the national capital region’s economic fortunes? Push back your timetable by two or three years, minimum.
Innumerable parts of the nation’s economy are desperate for federal dollars in the form of a new rescue bill from Congress, which has been gripped by partisan gridlock for months. In a $2 trillion measure proposed by Democrats, most transit systems, including Metro, would be largely able to sustain current service levels — already significantly reduced from pre-covid levels. Under the vastly smaller Republican alternative, massive new cuts are inevitable.
Then there is the zero option — no new funds — which, in the absence of any discernible progress on Capitol Hill, is the baseline assumption on which transit executives must formulate their budgets. In Metro’s case, the zero option is a disaster that would deepen the hole from which the local economy must climb.
On Monday, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld offered a preview of that grim horizon, which would arrive next summer at the start of the system’s new fiscal year. By then, Metro will already have reduced its workforce by some 1,400 through buyouts and, possibly, layoffs; it would then face eliminating an additional 2,400 skilled workers of its pre-pandemic payroll of 12,000 employees, including hundreds of bus and subway operators, station managers, mechanics and engineers. Nineteen rail stations would be closed, under his scenario. Bus service, already slashed by a quarter from last spring, would be cut by that much again, and more.
Those service cuts, in addition to layoffs, buyouts, deferred salary raises (if employee unions agree), plus some accounting acrobatics — namely, raiding capital projects for operating funds — are Metro’s game plan for closing a funding gap now projected at nearly $500 million out of a budget of roughly $1.95 billion.
By the way, Mr. Wiedefeld’s plan is not even a worst-case scenario. It assumes some passenger and revenue growth next year once a covid-19 vaccine is widely available. It also assumes that Metro’s state and local stakeholders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia would hold fast and even increase their subsidies, which account for a major chunk of the system’s operating income. That may be optimistic given the budgetary pressures facing those state and local governments.
Those grievous short-term problems may be compounded in the medium term, when the region’s economy starts to recover, when Metro would try to rebuild capacity and service after having lost thousands of highly trained workers. “Ramping back up would be so unprecedented,” Mr. Wiedefeld told us. “[It] underscores how difficult this is if we can’t figure a way to get some additional help here.”
That additional help can come from just one source, Congress, which has so far shirked this most pressing responsibility. The costs of that impasse, to the jobs, lives and health of the nation, are incalculable.