It’s critical that transit systems keep running, even as riderships fall by as much as 90 percent from pre-pandemic levels. And none may be as critical as Metro, on which the federal government, including the Pentagon and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Washington office, continues to rely, albeit at drastically reduced in-office staffing.
Transit is not an urban amenity; it’s life support for people who need it to access groceries, dialysis and jobs at hospitals whose continuing ability to address the crisis depends on employees showing up for work. But how long can it hold out?
In Detroit, bus drivers, furious that their buses had not been cleaned overnight last week, refused to come to work last Tuesday. Officials scrambled to fix the problem, and passengers were desperate. In New York, the nation’s biggest and busiest system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is seeking a $4 billion bailout.
In Washington, Metro’s losses are $52 million monthly. Extrapolate that over a full year, and the red ink comes to more than $620 million, a major chunk of the agency’s $2 billion annual operating budget. Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro’s general manager, asked the Washington area’s congressional delegation for help in a “dire” financial situation. At the moment, Metro may need to tap its line of credit to pay personnel — a costly means of borrowing and one that may only last six months or so.
Disappearing passengers is a challenge; it may not be the biggest one facing transit agencies. Their own employees are at no less risk of contracting the virus than the general public, and the consequences would be grim in the event of a contagious breakout among workers in, say, an operations control center.
Metro, among some other major systems, has established a parallel control center, fully staffed, 10 miles away from the preexisting one in the Maryland suburbs. The two facilities have been working in alternating shifts; if the virus takes down one, the other can take the reins.
At the moment, the mantra that “safety trumps service” is smart. Metro is assiduously warning against nonessential trips, including (or especially) to see the cherry blossoms. But just as there are essential jobs, a city needs to operate essential services even in an emergency. Those include sanitation, police and fire — as well as transit. The bottom line is this: In the absence of Metro, nothing — not the National Guard; not ride-sharing services; not bikes or mopeds — is a plausible substitute. Metro and other urban transit systems must survive because there is no Plan B.