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Metro’s next leader will face ridership challenges and a looming ‘financial cliff’

Officials say federal workers are not returning in numbers needed to cover the agency’s annual operating costs

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, center, rides a Red Line train with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), left, in 2018. Isiah Leggett, then the Montgomery county executive, is at right. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Metro already was mired in one of the most uncertain periods of its history, struggling to overcome dual crises on its rail and bus systems while charting a path during the pandemic. This past week came another item on the to-do list: hire a new leader to restore public trust and the transit system’s finances before a federal spigot runs dry.

A relatively minor single-car derailment in October will lead to a train shortage of at least six months after a defect was found in Metro’s most relied-upon rail car model. Meanwhile, an unprecedented number of bus drivers are out sick during the surge of the omicron variant, putting weekend-level bus service on the region’s roads seven days a week.

Those short-term problems have obscured what transit leaders say is coming into greater focus with each passing month. Federal workers, the main passenger base Metro has relied on since it began operating nearly half a century ago, are not returning in numbers needed to cover the transit agency’s nearly $2 billion annual operating costs.

The challenges come as Metro, like other transit agencies, is trying to redefine its mission and relevance nearly two years after the pandemic expanded telework, stealing commuters and leaving Metro staring at a financial shortfall when stimulus dollars end. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, 66, cited the hardships Tuesday in announcing he will step down in six months, saying it will give Metro time to find a leader who can navigate years of transformation.

Metro’s general manager to retire after six years as top executive

If ridership levels remain stagnant, transit officials say the biggest challenge facing Metro’s next general manager could be significant service cuts, closing down stations or laying off workers. It could involve lobbying the federal government for financial aid or working to persuade voters and regional leaders to pass a sales tax for Metro, officials say.

Metrobus is carrying about two-thirds of the passengers it served before the pandemic, while the rail system is down about 80 percent. Metro leaders increasingly view the vacant spaces onboard trains and buses headed downtown as less of a temporary result of the pandemic.

“I think it’s a new normal,” said Tom Bulger, an alternate Metro board member until he resigned last month after more than 11 years on the panel. “I’m afraid to say it’s not going to change rapidly in the foreseeable future.”

Wiedefeld had proposed a budget that included significant service cuts, but federal coronavirus aid packages rescued Metro and other transit agencies, sparing them of dire scenarios. Before he left the board, Bulger had raised the idea that Metro should again be prepared to close stations or contract transit services to match demand with usage.

In June, board members passed the system’s most significant fare cuts in at least three years in a bid to recruit riders back. Transit leaders are planning even more cuts and temporary discounts to boost that effort. But ridership has rebounded little since then, and federal money will start to evaporate in summer 2023.

Metro’s general manager to retire after six years as top executive

Metro surveys show that since December, 19 percent of passengers who rode Metrorail at least once were federal workers, a number that falls to 9 percent of Metrobus riders. Federal workers made up roughly 40 percent of all Metro riders before the pandemic.

It was clientele that provided a stream of revenue with trips that were subsidized by the federal government. The National Federation of Federal Employees, a union representing about 100,000 federal workers, did not respond to a message seeking comment about the shift to telework.

Those workers do not seem to be returning, which Wiedefeld acknowledged during an interview with The Washington Post this past week before he announced he will step down after six years as chief executive.

Metro says train shortage to last three more months while agency seeks ‘root cause’ of defect

Ridership had been crawling upward in the fall, but Wiedefeld said growth plateaued, even before the mid-October suspension of Metro’s 7000-series rail cars forced the transit agency to reduce rail service. The stagnant ridership numbers also preceded the omicron variant. A federal mandate requiring transit passengers to wear a mask is dissuading some riders, he said, adding the real culprit is the trend toward telework.

“Where we are unique is the dependency on the federal workforce,” he said. “That is very concerning because of just the change, and whether or not that demand does come back from the federal workforce. … Those aren’t service-related issues; those are travel behavior, travel-demand issues that are changing around us.”

Federal workers were the backbone of Metro. Their absence is taking a toll on the system.

According to Metro’s most recent projections, the transit agency expects 53 percent of pre-pandemic ridership in the next fiscal year, with 75 percent returning by about July 2024. Meanwhile, Metro is counting on $715.8 million in remaining stimulus relief money to help fill a gap in lost fare money during its 2023 fiscal year.

Metro will have only $151.3 million left over for the next year, creating what board member Lucinda M. Babers, deputy mayor of operations and infrastructure for the District, called a “financial cliff.” Much of the gap is from the loss of the federal workforce.

According to Metro customer surveys, federal workers who rode the system before the pandemic are teleworking an average of 3½ days a week. Nearly half continue to telework full-time, said Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly.

A U.S. Office of Personnel Management report on the use of telework among federal workers in fiscal year 2020 — which included six months of the pandemic — found that 45 percent of all federal workers teleworked. Of those who were eligible, 90 percent did so. The report found that telework boosted employee morale, retention and emergency preparedness while reducing the government’s real estate costs.

In the report, Kiran Ahuja, the director of the office, recommended continued telework, while a recent federal worker survey showed nearly 80 percent of employees were satisfied with their agency’s telework program.

Robin Carnahan, administrator of the General Services Administration, testified before a U.S. House subcommittee that “government-wide adoption of telework” also allows the federal government to cut leasing costs and save money.

Metro proposes fare cuts to lure riders in budget that assumes slow return of passengers

Despite the telework trend, Metro leaders say they remain hopeful that ridership numbers will rebound, but add that current service reductions and the pandemic are hindering the transit agency from getting a clear snapshot of what commuter demand will look like this year.

Bulger and Michael Goldman, chair of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission, who was on the Metro board last year, said leaders in recent months have discussed trying to push for a regional sales tax that could help Metro, which would require passage in Metro’s service area.

Board members, transit advocates and even members of Congress have tried unsuccessfully for years to push the federal government — which already provides Metro with annual money for capital expenses — to provide Metro with an additional operating subsidy. Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents about 8,000 of Metro’s nearly 12,000-person workforce, said in a statement that open communication with the next general manager will be pivotal to negotiating the tough times ahead.

“The next few years ahead will be challenging, but we’re confident in saying that WMATA is a better system when it values and listens to the opinions of those that do the work that keeps this region moving,” union officials said.

The revival of financial discussions is likely to accelerate this year with federal dollars dwindling in the months ahead.

“We need to really look at the longer-term role of transit and Metro in the region,” Wiedefeld said. “What type of service should we provide? How do we adjust to the changing travel behavior? How do we best be positioned for that? And that’s a much broader discussion, but it’s one that needs to be had in fairly short order.”