WASHINGTON — Metro proposals that would slash service, raise fares and cut jobs have drawn sharp reactions across the region, and they are all tied to a major problem for the transit agency: significantly fewer people are riding the system.
At Metro board of directors committee meetings Thursday, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld formally proposed the service cuts and fare hikes as a “shared sacrifice” that could drive even more riders away.
Even with no action taken, the reaction to the proposal emphasized the sharp divisions among Metro Board members who will ultimately decide what, if any, late-night or weekend hours to cut and what fare hikes and service cuts to approve.
D.C. Council member and Metro Board Chair Jack Evans said, to cheers from union members in the room, that D.C. would pay its full share of the potential budget shortfall if Maryland and Virginia also agreed to pay their share of what would be required to avoid fare hikes and rush-hour service cuts. That would total just less than $100 million in additional funding, after two years where contributions from jurisdictions and fares remained flat.
Maryland Metro Board member Michael Goldman praised Wiedefeld’s plan, although he suggested there might be some tweaks needed.
The budget includes plans to cut several hundred more positions, including 300 people who would no longer be needed with trains scheduled less often at all times of day, including rush hour and eight fewer hours of rail service each week.
“I feel like we are being scapegoated,” the president of Metro’s largest union told reporters after the meeting.
Jackie Jeter’s Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is in contract negotiations with Metro. She described the negotiations as “stalled,” but Wiedefeld described it as ongoing, with talks as recently as last week.
“I’m not saying that they shouldn’t cut because ridership is down, but ridership is down because you have a surge that will not allow people to actually ride the system,” she said.
Earlier in the week, she said the budget could send Metro into more of a “death spiral,” and Thursday focused on what would happen if, as Metro hopes, riders begin to return to the system after the most significant scheduled track work disruptions end this spring.
“So, if it’s over in July, what the hell are you going to do with the people that want to get back on the system?” she said.
The round-the-clock track work has added to ridership declines, but that is in addition to still sharply falling numbers since 2009, when two Red Line trains collided near Ft. Totten, and again since January 2015, when smoke filled a train near L’Enfant Plaza.
First, weekend ridership saw dramatic declines as the system launched extensive single-tracking and shutdowns meant to address critical repairs. Eventually, the broad ridership impacts carried over to weekdays, as more arcing insulators, track issues and other problems arose.
Now, there are about 100,000 fewer riders each weekday than at Metro’s peak, and Metro leaders said more extensive and better-done track work is needed.