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Metro plans drastic service cuts in January if COVID relief bill doesn't pass

WJLA – Washington D.C. logo WJLA – Washington D.C. 3/4/2021 Tom Roussey (ABC7)
a group of people standing in front of a building © Provided by WJLA – Washington D.C.

This week Metro employees have fanned out to various rail stations to talk with riders about drastic proposed budget cuts that would take effect in January. But at the same time, a federal $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill appears to be moving closer to passage that could eliminate or vastly reduce any potential need for cuts.

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld has said a relief bill signed by President Donald Trump at the end of last year only provided enough money to avoid severe cuts for the rest of this calendar year.

As a result, as of January Wiedefeld has proposed temporarily closing up to 22 rail stations, closing all the rest at 9 p.m. every day, and spacing out trains to the point where at some stations they would only arrive every half hour.

He has also proposed reintroducing turnbacks, where every other Red Line train would not go any further north than Grosvenor and Silver Spring, and all Yellow Line trains would not go further north than Mt. Vernon Square.

Meanwhile, more than 100 Metrobus routes would be cut, and 27 other routes would be scaled back in some way.

But will the cuts be necessary? A proposed $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill being pushed by President Joe Biden that has already passed the U.S. House is moving forward in the U.S. Senate this week. In its current form it includes about $30 billion in help for public transit agencies.

At this time it’s unclear exactly how much of that would go to Metro. However, both the relief bill enacted late last year and the CARES Act enacted last spring included smaller amounts for transit relief, yet Metro’s share from those two bills was still enough to stave off many cuts the GM said would otherwise have been necessary.

As of last week Metro’s rail ridership was running about 87% below what it was at the same time last year, while bus ridership was down around 60%. Although Metro also depends heavily on government subsidies for its funding, the transit agency says lost revenue from riders has drastically affected its budget.

Based on the two previous Covid bills, it takes a little time after a relief bill is passed for the federal government to determine exactly how much money Metro and other smaller local transit agencies will get. Once Metro has a final number and knows any restrictions that apply to spending it, it and its board members can decide what cuts are no longer needed.

“We will analyze the final bill language as quickly as possible after its passage and work with the FTA to determine how much relief funding Metro may receive,” Metro spokesperson Ian Jannetta wrote in an email to ABC7.

Metro’s board of directors could wind up on a tight timeline; as of now they are scheduled to make a final vote on next fiscal year’s budget in April. The fiscal year starts July 1 but the big cuts being proposed would not start until January 1.

Some board members have questioned the current budget proposal, saying it presents a dire picture that is ultimately unlikely to happen.

If you would like to give Metro your opinion on its current proposal, the transit agency says you can take the online survey or call toll-free 844-468-5748.

There will also be four virtual public hearings next week in which people can give oral testimony by calling toll-free 512-580-8850. Metro listed the hearings on its website, and they can be watched live at www.YouTube.com/MetroForward:

Monday, March 8, 2021, 11 a.m.

Host: Board Member Paul Smedberg

Meeting Code: 9476

Monday, March 8, 2021, 6 p.m.

Hearing will focus on proposed changes in DC, but is open to everyone.

Host: Board Member Stephanie Gidigbi-Jenkins

Meeting Code: 3811

Tuesday, March 9, 2021, 6 p.m.

Hearing will focus on proposed changes in Maryland, but is open to everyone.

Host: Board Member Michael Goldman

Meeting Code: 9131

Wednesday, March 10, 2021, 6 p.m.

Hearing will focus on proposed changes in Virginia, but is open to everyone.

Hosts: Board Members Paul Smedberg and Walter Alcorn

Meeting Code: 9141

Stations that could be closed

The 22 stations that would close as of January in the current budget proposal include Archives, Arlington Cemetery, Cheverly, Clarendon, Cleveland Park, College Park, East Falls Church, Eisenhower Avenue, Federal Center SW, Federal Triangle, Greensboro, Grosvenor-Strathmore, Judiciary Square, McLean, Morgan Boulevard, Mt. Vernon Square, Smithsonian, Van Dorn Street, and Virginia Square.

The GM is also proposing closing three Silver Line stations that are not even open yet: Innovation Center, Loudoun Gateway, and Reston Town Center. Phase 2 of the Silver Line is scheduled to open in July but officials have recently said it’s more likely to happen late this year.

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