- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

D.C.-area officials say the next federal coronavirus relief bill must include public transportation funds to help bail out Metro from a budget deficit of nearly $495 million for operations next year.

“Funding [it] shouldn’t be political,” Jeffrey McKay, a Democrat and chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said Tuesday in an email. “It’s about supporting the thousands of lives impacted by the pandemic. Congress needs to step in immediately to fund [it] and the countless ripple effects these cuts will have.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, called for collaboration when she tweeted Monday that regional and federal partners need to work together to save the regional transit agency “[r]egardless of party or ideology.”

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld on Monday unveiled the agency’s $1.9 billion operational budget for fiscal 2022, which includes closing 19 subway stations, up to 30-minute wait times, no weekend rides and ending service two hours earlier at 9 p.m. daily.

Mr. Wiedefeld said the shortfall is imminent without federal funds due to “constrained jurisdiction subsidies and ridership projected at 34% of pre-pandemic levels.”

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have sparred for months over a second round of virus relief. Meanwhile, local leaders are warning of the potential negative impact of cuts to Metro if another stimulus package is not passed during the lame-duck session that began Monday.

The Coronavirus, Aid, Recovery and Economic Relief (CARES) Act had kept Metro afloat with more than $800 million in funds, but Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said Tuesday “that relief is running out.”

“The COVID-19 health crisis has resulted in unavoidable and catastrophic reductions in revenue and ridership,” Mr. Elrich, a Democrat, said in an email. “Although fewer people are using Metro due to COVID-19 today, these transportation services remain critical for essential travel and are a lifeline for the people who live and work in the region.”

With only $264 million in projected revenue for next year, Metro is recommending that $160 million in capital budget funds be used to help cover preventive maintenance costs, and says as many as 2,400 of its more than 12,000 workers could be subject to layoffs and salary freezes.

Moreover, the budget proposal also includes operating fewer subway service lines and using eight cars per train. Metrobus would reduce its service to 41 lines, roughly 45% of pre-pandemic operations.

“The severity of the service cuts” would be “disastrous” for both local residents and businesses, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, chair of the Transportation and the Environment Committee, said Tuesday in an email.

“There is no strong economic recovery without a safe and reliable public transportation system,” the Ward 3 Democrat said, adding that “it is critical” the next virus relief package has funds to help avoid “these draconian cuts.”

The Metro’s annual budgeting process begins Friday with a Board of Directors meeting. Members of the public will be able to weigh in on the proposal by sending comments and speaking at public hearings before the board casts a final vote in March.

If passed, the changes would go into effect in July, when fiscal 2022 begins.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz said he worries that the changes could be devastating if Congress does not provide “quick and substantial help.”

“The long-lasting economic impact of a Metro system that doesn’t do its job will hurt those in our region who rely on the system for getting to work and doing the critical tasks of living their lives,” Mr. Schwartz said Tuesday in an email.

According to Metro’s annual financial report, the total budget for fiscal 2020, which ended in June, was about $3.8 billion, which included $1.9 billion for operations, $1.8 billion for capital improvement and $72 million for debt service.

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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