- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2020

The Metro board of directors on Friday pressed General Manager Paul Wiedefeld about the major cuts he has proposed to deal with a nearly $500 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.

Mr. Wiedefeld on Monday announced that the agency’s $1.9 billion budget plan for fiscal 2022 would include closing 19 subway stations, up to 30-minute wait times, no weekend rides and ending service two hours earlier at 9 p.m. Several bus service lines would be cut, and employees may be subject to layoffs and salary freezes.

The plan states the shortfall is imminent without federal funds because of “constrained jurisdiction subsidies and ridership projected at 34% of pre-pandemic levels.”

The budgeting process began with a Financial and Capital Committee meeting Friday, during which board alternate Jeff Marootian, representing the District, asked how the proposal considers the possibility of additional federal funding.

Mr. Wiedefeld pointed out the budget plan for the current year, which also initially suggested closing rail stations two hours early, but changed when more funds were secured.

“The same thing would play out here. As we learn more, whether it’s through ridership, whether it’s through vaccine, whether it’s through federal dollars, we can adjust and bring things back in,” he said. “Again, it’s much easier to come back, to bring things back in, than to go back and start cutting things again.”

Board member Gregory Slater, who is Maryland’s transportation secretary, said he is “concerned” that the budget’s projection that rail service will recover 34% of its pre-pandemic ridership is “really conservative” and it “could be much higher than that.”

Mr. Slater said he is “hopeful” riders will begin to come back as “reports of the vaccine are starting to be distributed in a few weeks.”

“But, ya know, cuts of this magnitude are really going to kind of make it tougher to return when that [ridership] comes back, so I’m really trying to think of the adaptability side,” he said. “If we can’t serve the people that need us at the time that they need us the most — the impacts are just going to multiply.”

Board Chairman Paul Smedberg asked Mr. Wiedefeld to explain the reasoning behind the ridership estimate.

The methodology considered projections for airports, the tourism and hospitality industries, and insight gathered through Metro rider focus groups, Mr. Wiedefeld said.

Rail riders “continually” said they “have choices” such as teleworking or driving, and he said until the pandemic “is almost in a rearview mirror, they are not going to be coming back.”

“So it’s not just that there’s a vaccine … [they say] it has to take hold, it has to be solved,” Mr. Wiedefeld said. “So we’re going to continue to focus on the cleaning that we’re doing, [ensuring] that this is a safe system to use, but they get to make the final choice. The final choice for them is when they feel comfortable getting back to the system.”

The budget plan is also based on local and state governments doling out 3% more in funding than they provided this year, which adds up to more than $1.1 billion for the estimated $1.9 billion in expenses.

But with the states and counties cash-strapped from dealing with the coronavirus, alternate board director Matt Letourneau, who represents Virginia and serves as chairman of the Board’s Finance, Government Operations and Economic Development Committee, said “there is concern from some elected officials that they may not be able to give us that.”

Members are set to meet again next week.

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