D.C. Metro Details Worst-Case Cuts If Budget Shortfall Remains

$750M shortfall accounts for nearly a third of the transit authority’s budget

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Attention all D.C. Metro riders: Your public transit commute could take much longer by this time next year — if it exists at all.

In a worst-case scenario projection released Tuesday, officials with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said they might be forced to cut as much as 60 percent of Metro services next summer to account for a $750 million funding shortfall during the next fiscal year, which starts in July. That figure accounts for nearly a third of Metro’s entire budget. 

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As many as 95 of its 134 bus routes could be slashed, some Metro stations could close entirely, wait times for trains could spike to 20 or 30 minutes on average, and all daily services could end by 9:30 p.m., along with the potential for ending services on Saturdays or Sundays, officials warned.

Not to mention that fares could go up, too.

For months, Metro has been warning about the impending crisis caused primarily by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent inflation. Metro typically receives its funding from a mix of fares, advertising, subsidies from local governments, federal grants and other sources.  

“We cannot afford to let Metro fail,” Metro CEO Randy Clarke said in June. “It is too important to the region, our economy and quality of life, connecting people to jobs and family, reducing gridlock, and cutting carbon emissions. Concerns were first raised about the lack of a dedicated and ongoing funding source in 1976 when Metrorail opened, and it is time for the region to come together to solve this serious financial challenge.”

Even the drastic cuts may not totally make up the deficit. The financial planning document that Metro released Tuesday notes that such severe service cuts could trigger a “transit death spiral.” As services decrease, so would ridership and revenue, meaning that addressing the budget shortfall will be that much more difficult in the years to come. 

Money-saving layoffs would also cripple Metro’s ability to eventually restore services, even if future funding was secured.

“We don’t have until next July,” Metro board member Sarah Kline said at a board of directors meeting late last month. “Impacts are going to start being felt in January, and even potentially before that.”

To avoid such drastic reductions, Metro officials say they need more dedicated funds from D.C., Maryland and Virginia to account for the transit system’s budget, especially as its $2.4 billion pandemic-era funding runs dry.

In 2018, the two states and D.C. agreed to an annual subsidy of $500 million for the beleaguered transit authority. Yet just a few years later, in 2021, Metro decided to reduce its annual subsidy requests by $135 million to help the jurisdictions with their own pandemic woes, according to The Washington Post

“Funding WMATA is non-negotiable. It has to be done,” Charles Allen, a D.C. Council member representing Ward 6 and chair of council’s transportation committee, told Commercial Observer. “I hear that from regional elected leaders as well. Fares have never come close to the full costs of the system, and it is past time the region properly fund our WMATA. But they can’t demand a blank check or else. We will continue to need transparency from WMATA on their assumptions for future budgets and to show their work on cost drivers.”

Metro officials will discuss the budget and potential service cuts during a board of directors meeting Thursday morning. 

Nick Trombola can be reached at NTrombola@commercialobserver.com.