On Friday, the District and cities and counties in Northern Virginia will begin easing restrictions on businesses and start allowing outdoor restaurant seating, visits to hair salons and barbers, and the reopening of specialty stores. Metro, the region’s largest public transportation system, however, is not planning to ramp up service, which has been reduced significantly since March to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus on trains and buses.
The transit agency shut down nearly 30 stations or construction projects because of the pandemic and limited service at its 360 bus routes after consulting with area elected, schools and business officials and surveying riders.
Metro has also said it has no plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of service until next spring because officials believe the majority of residents will continue to limit travel until a vaccine for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, emerges.
However, Metro’s recovery plan was announced in early May. Since then, the region has seen decreases in infection rates and deaths and a corresponding increase in public pressure to lift some of the restrictions imposed on daily life.
Metro’s ridership remains at historic lows — down at least 90 percent from pre-pandemic levels on rail and around 70 percent on Metrobus. But customers are beginning to return. “We have seen upticks of ridership, which correlates to nicer weather,” Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said Thursday at a board meeting.
David Horner, who represents the federal government on Metro’s board, questioned the transit agency’s plan given that bus ridership currently surpasses its projected capacity for customers.
“The daily trips on bus in May has touched approximately 130,000, but the recovery plan contemplates capacity for 85,000 daily trips on bus during the stabilization period,” Horner said. “Would the management consider raising its sights for the stabilization period for bus capacity from 85,000 to 130,000 given that there is already robust demand for bus services today in order to stay ahead of demands?”
Wiedefeld responded by saying Metro can address the imbalance by shifting buses from least-used routes to busier routes.
“What we are going to do is allocate the resources that we have with the most used lines,” he said. “And then we’re going to constantly monitor what’s happening on the demand side and provide additional services where we can on rail and bus.”
Metro has limited room to maneuver because it has chosen to use the next few months for major capital projects. Orange Line stations and the Silver Line west of Ballston station closed Memorial Day weekend for a platform replacement project and for testing of the Silver Line Phase 2 extension. The shutdown is expected to last four months.
Metro is also planning a rolling shutdown of stations from Fort Totten to Navy Yard to work on rail segments along the Green and Yellow lines. Stations would be shuttered on an alternating basis for one to two weeks between June 7 and July 3.
The projects are in various stages and cannot be rolled back, officials have said.
But Wiedefeld said Metro does have ways to expand service such as opening the first and last rail cars on trains, which are now closed to protect operators and create buffers between them and passengers. Each car can hold more than 100 passengers — though no more than 20 people has been recommended to adhere to social distancing guidelines, according to the transit agency.
Wiedefeld said Metro’s first priority will continue to be protecting its employees. As of Thursday, 125 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 70 have recovered and one person remains hospitalized.
“You’ve got to remember this isn’t a light switch for us,” Wiedefeld said. “You know, it does take time. It does take effort for us to get additional capacity, and the reality is we have to protect our employees. But right now, we continue to focus on that first. So we’re keeping them separated. We’re keeping their work hours at a certain rate to make sure that we protect them … But we’ll see what the what the demand looks like.”
Metro has said its ability to keep passengers and riders safe depends on businesses, schools and elected officials to continue allowing employees to work from home as much as possible and to stagger the number of employees or children allowed into offices or classrooms. Among two of Metro’s largest customer bases are District schoolchildren and federal workers, who make up the biggest workforce in the region.
The transit agency will once again survey businesses about their plans to reopen. Metro has posted an online survey “seeking feedback from employers about their expected ‘return-to-office’ schedules, which would determine changes in demand for Metrorail and Metrobus services.”
Wiedefeld said Metro has made both federal and school officials aware of the limited capacity it can run safely, and he said Metro will continue to promote that people limit their rides for work, school, groceries and other essential trips.
“I think it’s a matter of everyone practicing social distancing really at this stage even though things are starting to open up,” he said. “I think, you know, people should really be careful [with] what they do, how they do it. I think that’s also the message that we’re hearing from the health professionals.”