Wiedefeld said the transit agency has spent $17 million over the past few months purchasing personal protective equipment such as face masks, wipes, gloves and hand sanitizer for front-line employees while expanding the use of disinfectants to clean Metro vehicles, stations and equipment.
He said the transit agency has lost 85 percent of its ridership as it has decreased service in the past week in an attempt to protect employees and encourage residents to stay home and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
The result, Wiedefeld said, is that Metro projects a budget deficit of at least $52 million a month.
“Federal assistance is critical to help us offset the direct costs and revenue losses we are facing,” he said. “We need support for transit operations, but traditional transit formulas are not designed to address our unique circumstances. We need immediate operating funding to address this unprecedented loss of $52 million a month,” Wiedefeld wrote.
“I request your support in securing this emergency funding for [Metro] so that we may continue to fulfill our critical role in safely providing lifeline service throughout the National Capital Region,” Wiedefeld added.
The letter was addressed to 12 members of the Senate and House who represent the District, Maryland and Virginia.
The ridership losses come after Metro had started seeing sustained ridership gains on Metrorail starting mid-last year for the first time after multiple years of losses. Trains were performing with fewer delays, Metro was offering riders a money-back on-time guarantee during rush hour, and Metro officials proposed expanding late-night service hours for the first time since reducing them in 2016.
In January, Metro began preparing for the coronavirus by activating a pandemic task force that immediately increased its stockpiles of protective equipment, disinfectants, sanitizers and other equipment by 25 percent. This week, in concert with state and D.C. officials closing schools, nightclubs and restricting seating in restaurants and bars, the transit agency reduced hours, frequencies and availabilities of trains, buses and routes in service, saying it wanted more time to clean and disinfect vehicles and limit exposure to drivers, operators and station managers.
On Wednesday, Metro began its most restrictive operating schedule, creating 15-minute wait times for trains and cutting back on bus routes, saying it wanted to discourage people from riding transit vehicles except for essential trips to help promote a message from regional leaders and the White House that residents needed to avoid crowds larger than 10 and keep proper social distances from others.
With the cutback, Metrorail had 140,000 passengers on Tuesday, a drop of nearly 80 percent compared with the same date last year. On a typical day, the rail system would see 140,000 passengers by 8:30 a.m., the transit agency said in a tweet.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said Wednesday that the transit agency wants to further reduce ridership this weekend when crowds are expected to gather at the Tidal Basin to see the annual blossoming of the District’s famous cherry blossoms.
The transit agency said seats and adequate distances on buses and rail cars need to be reserved for essential government workers and first-line responders including hospital personnel. Stessel warned that service may be further reduced during the weekend and that some stations could close if rail operations controllers see too many crowds flocking to stations or platforms.
“Right now, we all need to focus on the public health emergency and make adjustments in our lives to keep others in our community safe,” he said. “We’re asking for the public’s cooperation today. Reduced Metro capacity needs to be there for those who must travel at this time — hospital staff, government workers, first responders. Now’s not the time for leisure trips to the Mall.”
And now, a public service announcement from your friends at Metro...— Metro (@wmata) March 18, 2020
Let's keep trains available for the hospital staff, first responders, and other heroes who need to travel right now. The trees will be there next year.#wmata #psa #CherryBlossoms #dc @MayorBowser #covid19dc pic.twitter.com/4PJO5qs8ei
Other transit agencies and companies such as Amtrak also are wrestling with how to provide service for workers and residents who need it, while also looking for ways to keep riders safe and bracing for budget shortfalls.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York said in a statement on Wednesday that it was drawing down $1 billion in its existing line of credit to meet service demands and revenue shortages due to a lack of passengers.
“Let’s be clear: These funds while important in providing liquidity, are not a comprehensive or permanent solution,” MTA Chairman Patrick J. Foye said. “This is a national disaster that requires a national response and we are urgently requesting the federal government provide more than $4 billion in federal funding to ensure the financial health of the MTA. We cannot afford to wait.”