WASHINGTON – Proposed budget cuts at Metro threaten thousands of jobs, the closure of 19 stations, the suspension of 19 bus lines and an end to weekend rail service.
“We’re facing an historic budget crisis,” Metro General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a Nov. 30 online press briefing.
Wiedefeld’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget cuts, which would take effect July 1, 2021, were released ahead of a Friday WMATA Board meeting. The moves are an attempt to overcome a $494 million operating deficit caused by a loss of riders during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the plan to slash service drew sharp attacks from a variety of critics.
Tara Maxwell, the political coordinator for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said the cuts would be devastating for transit workers.
“They don’t have any concern for the people that it’s affecting, or for their families,” Maxwell told Capital News Service.
Transit advocates like Robert Puentes said the cuts would be devastating to the economy and transit network in the capital region.
“It would have devastating effects on the city,” said Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-profit research and policy foundation in Washington. Cuts of this magnitude, according to Puentes, will make it hard to retain riders and scale services back up after the pandemic.
Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, told CNS that the service cuts would hurt other essential workers who depend on buses and trains to get to work.
“They’re the ones who would be most devastated by severe cuts to bus and rail service, the people who work in our grocery stores and hospitals, support city government services, public safety, healthcare, eldercare, childcare,” Scwartz said.
Metro’s woes are mirrored by transit systems in other cities, like New York, where cuts to the MTA could mean thousands of job losses, and Los Angeles, where Metro authorities approved a $1.2 billion cut.
“The pandemic has plunged the nation’s transit agencies into a profound crisis,” the National Association of City Transportation Officials says on its website.
“Strong federal support is essential for providing essential services, including transit, throughout this crisis and in its aftermath,” the group says. “Without at least $32 billion in additional emergency aid for transit, our cities and economy cannot fully recover.”
The American Public Transit Association, an international association of public transit groups, called on Congress to pass tens of billions of dollars of emergency funding. APTA cited a poll from First View that found more than three-quarters of American voters supported emergency funds for public transit.
“Americans not only want actions now to save public transit during the pandemic, but they want continued long-term actions that preserve and expand public transit services,” APTA CEO Paul Skoutelas said in a Nov. 19 statement.
According to Schwartz, the loss of jobs and transit opportunities could drive parts of the Washington area workforce elsewhere, while leading to heavier car traffic and more severe greenhouse gas emissions, as more workers and tourists are forced to drive.
Maxwell said job losses will also impact Black workers, noting that most of Local 689 members are Black. Job losses will hurt Maryland as well as the District of Columbia, as more than 7,000 members of Local 689 live in Prince George’s County, he said.
Transit advocates agree with WMATA that the monetary problems caused by the pandemic are stark.
“The cuts reflect the reality that the agency is in,” Puentes said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said the fate of WMATA’s workers and services depends on Senate action.
“The House passed two major pieces of legislation that would provide WMATA with desperately needed funding to avoid these drastic measures, yet the Senate has refused to act,” Hoyer said in a statement Tuesday.
Schwartz echoed the sentiment, and said that Republicans and Democrats in Congress needed to intervene to save transit authorities, whose CARES Act funding has run out.
“We can’t believe that it’s gotten to this point and Congress is still dithering,” Schwartz said.
Absent congressional action, both Maxwell and Schwartz think there are things local authorities, particularly Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, can do to soften the blow.
“We cannot and could never afford boondoggles like the maglev proposal, and hyper loops and new toll lanes,” Schwartz said. “We must put our existing transit systems first.”
Maxwell questioned the utility of such projects at a time when thousands of workers in existing transit services face unemployment.
“But even if I was a millionaire, why would I want to pay $50 per person for a toll,” Maxwell said.
“They’re spending millions of dollars right now on research and information that they’re finding out is not favorable toward the maglev you know, but they are still spending that money. That money could go to operational need for transit,” Maxwell said.
He added that transit operators have worked through the pandemic, despite the risk of exposure to coronavirus.
“They stood in the gap. They transport other essential workers to and from work and home,” Maxwell said. “They did their part, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.”
Schwartz said services would take a long time to recover.
“It would mean a declining economy, greater unemployment, greater inequity, in terms of ability to gain access to jobs, a traffic Armageddon, setting back the D.C. region decades,” Schwartz said.