Metro faces potential service cuts, shorter hours, layoffs in budget battle

The Metro Board of Directors voted Friday on potential service cuts, schedule changes and layoffs as the organization attempts to balance its budget during the coronavirus pandemic.

The concern focuses on a lack of federal funding as ridership has failed to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

Metro estimates that money from the CARES Act will run out by the end of the calendar year, “essentially forcing the Board to consider $200 million in spending cuts in the event that federal relief ends,” according to a news release.

Proposed changes include the following:

Metrorail

  • Reduced Metrorail service: Standardize weekday train frequencies to 12 minutes on each line.
  • Reduced Metrorail hours: Close Metrorail at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (Friday and Saturday closure would remain 11 p.m.).
  • Turnbacks: On weekdays, half of Red Line trains would operate between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring only. All Yellow Line trains would operate between Huntington and Mt. Vernon Square only, seven days a week.

Metrobus

  • Continue reduced Metrobus service levels and hours, instead of adding service in early 2021 as planned.

Details on the public comment period for the changes will be announced soon.

Board member Matt Letourneau called it “sobering” that there could be layoffs at the transit agency. “That’s painful for the board and painful for the employees.” But he added, “From a ridership perspective I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance with what we’re forwarding for public comment.”

Michael Goldman, second vice chair on the Metro Board objected to the reintroduction of turn-backs on the Red Line.  He called that part of the budget cutting plan “still of concern for me personally, and for riders in Montgomery County.”

He asked for additional data to justify the action as the board prepares for a final vote in November.

Ridership throughout the D.C. region amid the coronavirus pandemic has fallen by 90% on some lines, Metro said.

More than $876 million in emergency funding provided by Congress in the CARES Act to replace lost revenue and pay worker salaries is expected to be depleted entirely by January, an event Metro budget documents characterize as a “fiscal cliff.”

“CARES Act funding has replaced fare revenue. If that funding isn’t there after December, Metro will need to implement measures that hurt the region’s economic recovery and adversely impact essential workers,” Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld said in the release.

Fare revenue accounts for 28% of Metro’s operating budget — and ridership is at roughly 12% of its pre-pandemic levels. Metro said it does not expect ridership levels to return to normal until a COVID-19 vaccine is released.

According to the agency, making up for a $200 million shortfall in funding isn’t possible without service cuts and layoffs.

“Metro is what drives the region’s economy and moves our federal workforce. Cutting service, shortening operating hours, laying off and furloughing workers — these all run counter to the strong recovery that everyone wants,” Wiedefeld said.

“I want to thank Board members for their approach to this extraordinary challenge, as they have advanced proposals that protect critically needed bus and rail services, transit dependent customers, and essential workers to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

Metro has been discussing the cutbacks for several weeks.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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