As Metro prepares to bring its transit system out of near hibernation starting next month, concern about crowding has become the agency’s top focus amid continual reports of standing-room-only buses.
Since the novel coronavirus pandemic began, transit crowding has been defined by the amount of space between bus and rail passengers instead of the number of riders. Metro board members wondered how the agency could stay ahead of growing demand while also ensuring the safety of those onboard from the highly contagious, airborne disease making a resurgence as of late.
“One of the things we’re hearing a lot of concern about is crowding, whether that’s on buses or on rail platforms potentially down the road,” board member Matthew F. Letourneau, also a Loudoun County supervisor, said Thursday during the governing body’s monthly meeting. “The concern isn’t just coming from riders, it’s coming from employers as well who have employees potentially taking transit.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld acknowledged in an interview that the transit agency has had trouble staying ahead of demand over the past four months while also noting the unpredictability of the situation. Regional cases of the coronavirus have risen, fallen and are up once again, prompting local officials to re-tighten restrictions after loosening them around early June. This week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) mandated face coverings when people leave homes and are likely to come into contact with others because of the uptick.
Metro, in response, has had the tough job of trying to predict who will ride transit in coming months. It didn’t anticipate that federal workers would start trickling back into offices in June. Now it waits for Bowser to make a decision at the end of the month on whether to open up city schools for which Metro, in all intents and purposes, serves as the city’s school bus system.
“Right now, we were under some stress. To be frank, I think that stress has backed off a little bit,” Wiedefeld said. “I think in August, we’ll be in a better place. I think we’re doing some things now to get us there.”
“We’re doing the best we can right now, given everything we’ve got,” he said. “And we have to remain as flexible as we can.”
At the Metro board meeting on Thursday, transit officials laid out specifics of how it will ramp up service after five months of keeping it at about a third of pre-pandemic levels.
Starting Aug. 16, Metrorail will double the number of trains in operation, bringing service up to 90 percent of normal, officials said. Faster rush-hour service will be reinstated during peak commuting times, and 15 hours will be added back to the operating schedule.
A week later, Metrobus will bring its service up to levels of between 70 and 80 percent of what it ran in February, with 175 routes returning to near-normal service levels, transit officials said.
The service ramp up was accelerated after daily passenger trips began increasing slightly but consistently in June, when federal workers started getting recalled into the office. The possibility of District schools — which can flood between 30,000 and 40,000 students into the transit system — reopening has made riders increasingly nervous.
“The current bus ridership is generally somewhere in the range of 120- to 140,000 daily riders,” said Andrew Kierig, vice chair of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council. “This does create, of course, social distancing concerns, not just at the peak periods in the afternoon … but also during the morning or whenever folks might be heading into work.”
Besides additional trains and buses, Metro staff said they’re preparing for a rush of passengers in other ways. Next month, they will also start handing out a half million face coverings, which remain mandatory on Metro, that the Federal Transit Administration donated. The transit agency is also looking to install sanitizer stations in stations, trains and buses, and it plans to increase “deep cleaning” disinfecting of stations. It’s also piloting a UV disinfection method that will “continuously disinfect escalator handrails,” Wiedefeld said, freeing up janitorial workers to focus on other high-touch areas.
Board members and the Riders’ Advisory Council have asked Metro if it could use technology to provide riders with updates online or at stations, alerting passengers of just how crowded specific lines or routes might be in real time.
“For instance, if a particular Metro platform becomes very crowded, can we proactively limit access to that platform until the train comes,” Letourneau asked, “or potentially send an alert to riders saying there’s heavy, heavy crowding on X lines?”
Metro does not have that capability, but Wiedefeld said the agency will monitor platforms and respond to any sudden demands with additional cars or “gap trains” similar to the buses being added to Metrobus routes now.
Metro is also starting an advertising and informational campaign that will include new signs for passengers.
“We need signage that says here’s what six people looks like [on a bus or rail car] and this is what we encourage people to do,” Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox told board members. “That will be out in the next phase next month.”
While Metro has found it difficult to exactly predict how many people return to transit, Bowersox said the latest surveys offer no signs of dramatic surges.
Government agencies such as the Defense Department, the National Institutes of Health and the State Department, as well as private companies such as Verizon and law firms are among those summoning workers back this summer. Bowersox said others, such as American and George Washington universities, Capital One, Morgan Stanley and The Washington Post, have opted to keep most of their workforce at home for the indefinite future.
While Metro prepares for the unknown, it continues to get by financially with the help of federal aid. Metro Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike said low ridership, as well as the waiving of fares on Metrobus due to mandatory rear-door boarding policies during the pandemic, led to a $61 million operating shortfall in May. The federal coronavirus relief act passed in the spring provided the agency with $767 million, which Anosike said will cover all losses for May and the last fiscal year.
Going forward, however, Wiedefeld said Metro will need more federal funding. Transit agencies across the nation are collectively asking for up to $36 billion in additional aid as Congress nears finalizing a second stimulus bill.
“We need the federal government’s support to make this happen because the local governments don’t have it,” Wiedefeld said. “They’re going the wrong way, revenue-wise. We’re going the wrong way revenue-wise from a farebox recovery and a commercial aspect.
“So I think it is so important that we get those dollars to keep this thing going,” he said. “It’s not a forever ask, but I think we’re just in such unique times. We need those dollars.”