Metro’s general manager on Wednesday spoke about the effect of federal relief money on Metro’s budget, the changes at the troubled control center, what a post-pandemic system will look like and more.
General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said during a Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance talk on Wednesday that there has been an 85% drop in rail ridership and a 60% drop for bus ridership since the beginning of the pandemic. Revenues have slid from almost $800 million a year before the pandemic to a projection of about $237 million for fiscal 2022.
Thanks to the federal help, Wiedefeld is recommending no service cuts or changes in the new Metro budget that he expects will pass and run through June 2022, but there are always tradeoffs, he said: As sectors of the economy reopen and Metro ramps up service to meet demand, “We want to keep social distancing. And we also want to be there as things start to open up. So that’s sort of the balancing act that we’re trying to do there.”
Wiedefeld said ridership is coming back slowly, as people are feeling out the system. Just like with restaurants and stores, which many people are returning to gradually and carefully, riders are returning to Metro, he said.
“Transit is safe, but we’ve got to get people to feel that safety. … We’ve got to continue to show that we’re keeping it clean, that if we have any issues, we get on top of it.”
The general manager also said Metro would have to confer with different business sectors to see how their practices and workdays might change in a post-pandemic reality, and that service might have to be adjusted if a permanent increase in telework means the traditional morning and evening rush hours aren’t what they used to be.
Wiedefeld said he couldn’t commit to a hard start date for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which runs out to Dulles International Airport. It’s generally believed that it will be ready to roll early next year, but the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority still has control of the project. While they predict it’ll be ready to hand off to Metro around Labor Day, Wiedefeld said there were still safety concerns as well as the routine training and work that Metro would need to do before opening it to riders.
Still, he said, it’s a priority.
“I want to get that out as quick as we can, because at the end of the day, that means a lot to its ridership; it means a lot to the region in economic development. I mean, just go into that corridor, and you can see what’s ready to take off there. And we’re key to that.”
A Metrorail Safety Commission report released in the fall cited a “toxic culture” in the control center. The center now reports directly to him, and the top people there have been replaced, Wiedefeld said — “So we’ve basically turned the entire operation upside-down.”
Since then, a law firm hired by Metro to investigate the report said those claims couldn’t be substantiated.
But Wiedefeld said it’s still a major safety focus, and it’s going to take time to fix, and some of the ideas include changes in the demanding work schedules to include more refresher training.
“I wish that we could go in and say, ‘All right, the culture changes tomorrow at 12 p.m.’ … but that’s not how it works. … I guess it’s been almost six months now that we’ve been working on this. And it’s gonna take time.”
While Wiedefeld said a transit system has to provide clean, safe, equitable transportation to a wide range of people, the economic-development aspect of Metro is still obvious.
“I often challenge people to find me a crane that’s not within a half-mile of a Metrorail station. When you look across the horizon [and] you see the construction cranes, that’s where they are. Because the development community is betting on the rail system, and vice versa.”