Thirty-minute train headways? Closing twenty-two stations? Bus service offered at 50% of pre-pandemic levels? Severe Metro service cuts which the agency threatened to implement this upcoming January are now very likely off the table thanks to legislation moving ahead in Congress. The DC-area transit agency should receive enough funding to restore most – if not all – service cuts planned for the next fiscal year.
Planning for Metro’s upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, usually starts about eight to nine months out. Given significant drops in ridership since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro has been hemorrhaging money, with so few riders in the system to pay for services being provided. The agency estimated that by using $514 million of CARES Act funding they would have a budget shortfall of $210 million in FY22, requiring cuts, layoffs, and/or other actions.
The agency moved forward on its budget process initially with a conservative approach that assumed no extra funding would come in from the feds to make up for ridership that’s been consistently very low since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. As such, the agency developed an initial draft budget which pushed the majority of the cuts to the second half of the year in case more money came through so the cuts would end up not coming to be.
Based on this legislation, no transit agency has an excuse to cut service for the next year. The federal government has provided agencies nationwide the funding they need to keep running buses & trains; no agency can accurately claim it “must” cut service. https://t.co/fE8SwsU8lB
— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) March 6, 2021
Metrorail – which brings in more money than Metrobus – is still carrying less than 100,000 trips per day, where ~650,000 trips per day was normal pre-pandemic. Metrobus ridership is twice as high as Metrorail – averaging about 160,000 trips per day – is still down 65% of what it was from the before-times.
When beginning its budget process back in December, Metro made certain assumptions about the number of people they expected might come back to its bus and rail systems during the July 2021 to June 2022 fiscal year. “Assuming a modest recovery through quarter four (Q4) FY2021,” the budget document says, “the FY2022 Budget is based on ridership that is approximately 34% of pre-Covid levels.”
But a lot has changed since Metro staff wrote that last year and began working on the agency’s next budget. Primarily, the American Recovery Act of 2021 looks as though it’ll become law soon, providing about $30 billion dollars to transit agencies around the country. While exact funding distribution numbers aren’t yet available, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld expects the DC area would receive about $1.4 billion, most (but not all) of which would go to Metro.
In addition to new funding that’ll be flowing soon, the US has also begun to receive fairly positive news about COVID-19 vaccinations. The Biden administration’s recent announcement that all adults should receive at least their first vaccination shot by the end of May could change Metro’s estimates of when riders might begin returning to the system. While the agency estimated they might see riders return beginning around August in time for the school year, Wiedefeld now thinks they could begin to see a resurgence during the summer.
It remains to be seen what Metro does with its budget given the forthcoming federal funding and public comments received during the budget’s public comment period. Board member Stephanie Gidigbi-Jenkins noted on Monday, March 8 said she expects the agency would be able to “minimize service reductions,” but no specifics were available at the time.
The Metro Board of Directors next meets on March 11. Metro is also seeking public input via a survey until March 16.