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Steep ridership losses will force changes to Metro service after pandemic, transit leaders say

Metro’s ability to provide safe and reliable transportation was under scrutiny by a House Oversight subcommittee

From left, David L. Mayer of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and Metro Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington appear before the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations on Feb. 9. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The public transit service that riders were accustomed to before the pandemic is not coming back, a result of fewer trips to downtown Washington and a rise in workers abandoning commutes, Metro leaders testified Wednesday at a hearing on problems plaguing the transit agency.

Metro’s ability to provide safe and reliable transportation was under scrutiny by the Oversight subcommittee on government operations, where Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld was among those who testified on the transit agency’s future and a federal safety investigation that has hampered public transit in the nation’s capital for nearly four months.

Metro in recent months has struggled through one of its most challenging periods, trying to keep the nation’s third-largest transit system operating during the federal probe while battling a pandemic that is draining its finances. Hundreds of suspended rail cars could return in April, but Metro officials are bracing for head winds to follow, acknowledging for the first time Wednesday the system is unlikely to return to earlier service levels.

Metro leaders are scrambling to find solutions for a $500 million shortfall beginning next summer, stemming from lost fares as riders gave up transit during the pandemic. Many office workers have opted to telework, including the federal workforce that made up 40 percent of the system’s rush-hour customers before the pandemic.

Lawmakers on Wednesday said the pandemic showed Metro’s importance to the region’s essential workers, but also exposed funding and safety problems that threaten the system. Several spoke of a desire to help the transit agency, while also coming to terms with the realities of a changed system.

“It’s really mission impossible turning this around from a financial standpoint, and we may have to accept that it’s going to be a consistent money loser and a big money loser for decades and decades, but necessary to have our capital shown in the best way it can and also get the legions of federal workers … to and from their place of work,” said Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), a subcommittee member.

Metro, an independent agency that receives funding from Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government, has been required to provide the subcommittee with periodic reports since high-profile safety incidents that included the death of a passenger in 2015.

After months of hoping for signs of a rider resurgence, Metro leaders turned their attention toward finding other ways to bridge a massive funding gap in 2023 and 2024, when about $1 billion in pandemic-related federal stimulus aid runs out. Metro’s annual operating budget hovers near $2 billion annually.

While Wiedefeld, Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg and other Metro officials have previously expressed concern about the pace of ridership growth, Wednesday was the first time either had stated they don’t expect the same service in the future.

“I don’t believe the pre-pandemic financial model for Metro is sustainable, but I do believe is it is the ideal time for the region to create a vision for the future of the system, one that recognizes the change in travel patterns, supports economic growth and environmental quality, meets the needs of the entire community, including addressing equity-related issues,” Wiedefeld said.

Board members and transit advocates have raised the possibility in recent months of persuading the federal government to contribute more money or asking the region’s voters or elected officials to pass a special sales tax for Metro.

Coming off a period when transit services were widely recognized for helping to keep the nation operating during the pandemic, transit agencies were rewarded with money from three rounds of stimulus packages and the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law, which devotes $39 billion to public transportation.

But lawmakers’ disappointment in Metro’s recent service crises, as well as its ridership slump, had few calling for increased support.

“If the federal workforce is no longer reliant on the Metro, why should we consider the Metro a national asset rather than just a local subway or transit system?” asked Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).

Asked how Metro could move forward without a rise in fare revenue, Wiedefeld said service might need to shift away from shuttling people in the suburbs and outlying neighborhoods to downtown Washington. Rail ridership has recently hovered at about 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“The long-distance trip may not be the primary trip any longer, but there may be much shorter trips that are made,” Wiedefeld said.

He also suggested Metro could partner with private companies such as Uber or Lyft, with ride-hailing services handling some trips while transit focuses on other areas.

Smedberg said new development along rail lines will need to be serviced by transit. Workers and residents who live near downtown might soon board Metro for Northern Virginia tech centers, such as Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington.

Still, he acknowledged “there is no doubt” Metro will have to make “very difficult financial and operational decisions.” Metro won’t look the same in the future, he said, predicting that a smaller number of riders will be taking trips to the city’s core.

“The regional financial model long term is simply not sustainable, and that conversation is going to take years to get to whatever that new model is,” Smedberg said. “But we have to start that discussion soon because the current model is most likely not sustainable into the future.”

Lawmakers on Wednesday also sought answers about Metro’s more immediate crisis: a rail car defect discovered during a National Transportation Safety Board probe into an October derailment. All 748 cars in Metro’s 7000 series — 60 percent of Metro’s fleet — have been out of service since Oct. 17 after investigators discovered the defect, which pushes wheels outward from axles, increasing the risk of derailment.

The suspension forced Metro to cobble together enough older trains to run the 91-station system at a reduced level, frustrating riders with lengthy waits.

The problems with the 7000 series are a major setback for a transit agency that had spent six years prioritizing system upgrades at the expense of expanding service levels. The change in focus came after the mishandling and botched response to the January 2015 electrical fire that filled a stalled Metro train with smoke outside L’Enfant Plaza, killing 61-year-old Carol Glover of Alexandria and injuring several others.

Wheel assembly on Metro rail cars had failed repeatedly, NTSB says; reduced service expected all week

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the subcommittee, noted the progress Wiedefeld has made during his six years leading the agency but said Metro hasn’t risen above recurring problems because of “a culture of mediocrity.” As Wiedefeld nears retirement this summer, Metro finds itself where it was — struggling to regain the trust of riders.

“Mr. Wiedefeld took over [Metro] at a time when all lights were blinking red, and the reality remains that our region has a ways to go to restore confidence in Metro,” Connolly said.

Connolly and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) organized Wednesday’s hearing, which included testimony from David L. Mayer, chief executive of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the regulatory agency that suspended the 7000 series cars. Metro Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington, who launched an investigation into the defect alongside the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general, also testified.

Lawmakers asked why Metro inspectors knew about the defect as early as 2017 but did not report the malfunction — as required — to the safety commission or Wiedefeld.

Inspectors general investigate Metro over not reporting rail car defects

Cherrington told the panel the joint inspectors general investigation found no evidence Metro intentionally withheld information from the safety commission. He said technicians and Metro’s chief mechanical officer didn’t view the malfunction as a safety hazard or concern. When they found defective cars, he said, they arranged repairs with the manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail Car.

Metro’s warranty review process was disconnected from the agency’s safety department, Cherrington said, suggesting one reason the issue wasn’t flagged. For reasons that are under investigation, Kawasaki Rail Car did not provide Metro with reports analyzing the wheel failures as the agency requested, he said.

Kawasaki Rail Car officials didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The company previously has said its cars were “confirmed to have met the technical specifications when delivered” to Metro. The company has said it is cooperating with the NTSB investigation.

Transit leaders say the suspended rail cars won’t return until at least April. Metro received the safety commission’s permission in December to put the cars back into service after Metro pledged daily inspections of wheels. But the safety commission reinstated the suspension after officials learned Metro was deviating from its inspection protocols.

Metro working on plan to bring suspended cars back into service

Mayer told lawmakers the timing of the cars’ return depends on Metro, which is using the next two months to find the cause of the defect, as well as a more efficient way to inspect wheels on a daily basis.

“It is up to Metrorail to determine the time needed to do this,” Mayer said. “Meanwhile, investigative work continues on the cause of the wheel movement on the axles, and this work may help inform Metrorail’s new plan.”

The NTSB is continuing to investigate the origin of the defect. Agency spokesman Keith D. Holloway said Tuesday that federal investigators had no updates on the probe.

While Metro searches for funding and the cause of the defect, Connolly noted another challenge fast approaching: The transit agency is scheduled in the coming months to begin service on the long-delayed, nearly 11-mile extension of the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport.