Metro service cuts due to pandemic could severely hurt federal commuters

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Finances of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, known as Metro, have collapsed under the pandemic. Weekday service could soon start to look like the weekend, and weekend service could end altogether. Scuffed-shoed federal drones who constitute a big chunk of Metro customers would have to find other options. For some perspective, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to Adam Tuss, longtime D.C.-area traffic expert, now transportation reporter for NBC News 4.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Adam, good to have you on.

Adam Tuss: Tom, thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: Give us a sense of how big the federal government commuter is to Metro’s traffic. And I guess you could also count contractors in on that count also.

Adam Tuss: 100%. And there’s no denying it that when Metro comes up, it is intrinsically tied together with the federal government. I mean, under normal circumstances, pre-pandemic, you’re talking about anywhere between 50 to 75% of the rush hour ridership is federal workers. And that is an astounding number. And because that really has been Metro’s main goal for so long, since its inception in 1976, you have to figure how many federal workers simply rely on the transit agency to get around. And that’s why this is a tough pill to swallow whether or not we’re in this pandemic or not. But what Metro has really become beyond that, at one point was the second busiest subway system in the entire country, carrying 750,000 riders a day, only behind New York City. So you had people using it to go about their daily lives, people using it on the weekends, really using it to go out and about. People relied on Metro and didn’t want to have a car necessarily. When you think about our horrible congestion and what it was like and how Metro could zip you around a lot of that when it worked effectively, that’s why it becomes so important. And that’s why really the declining ridership and all of this has been a tough pill to swallow to see Metro as it was sort of turning the corner, now relegated to this.

Tom Temin: And what about the weekends, because as someone who rode it on weekends from time to time, you did see people going to and from work, they had briefcases on Saturdays. So it’s not strictly five day a week function, is it?

Adam Tuss: No, not at all. People needed to get to and from their jobs, people needed to get to bars and restaurants that they might work at late night. That’s why you saw so many fierce debates over late night hours in years past about people who would use it late at night because people do rely on Metro to get around. And whether or not a lot of us realize it, is the only way for some people to get around. So on weekends, what they’re talking about clearly, and this to me was the biggest gut punch, was just scrapping rail service all together, that is almost impossible to fathom that as the nation’s capital in the United States, there will be no subway system running on the weekends. And what they would do is they would supplement it with bus service, which can work pretty effectively, but it’s not the metro system. And so that was a really tough thing for a lot of people to kind of take to see that they’re proposing such doomsday budget cuts here. But it also does point out where we are in this whole situation. I think that one of the things that Metro is doing here is they are trying to force the federal government’s hand. And it’s not just Metro, we should say it’s transit agencies across the country, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, they’re all in the same situation, because quite frankly, they’re all losing millions per day from riders that would be on their system. And now they have to go into their budget, start looking into the future and say, Well, you know, we had a bunch of money set aside to do these projects, like rehab platforms, fix aging infrastructure, we might now have to take that money and plug a budget gap. And all of this can be fixed with more federal CARES funding. The first round of stimulus in the cares act got Metro pretty far through this pandemic, and actually got a little bit farther than they thought it would carry them. And so that’s why you’re starting to see the general manager of the board come out and say, we’re gonna need another round of that, they have a half a billion dollar budget gap to fix before July. And if the federal government can step in and do that, and you’re starting to see some people on Capitol Hill make mention of what could be coming to transit — well, then we could possibly get to the other side of this pandemic.

Tom Temin: And what about the subsidies that the government issues to federal employees to cover their transit. That has all dried up I imagine. Has any thought been given to simply continuing that even though no one’s riding? It’s one way to get the revenue going, maybe from a different channel, but ultimately it’s all federal revenue.

Adam Tuss: Yeah. And that will have to be considered in the entire pot. And Tom you’re absolutely right. Federal workers get upwards of $200 a month to ride the transit system. So for a lot of people there’s an incentive to get back on the trains and buses. I’m not sure how much because there already is a federal stream that’s coming in toward Metro, I’m not sure kind of which pieces of the pot would have to be sliced and diced. We did see Metro start mentioning some things that would have to be cut, like I was mentioning preventative maintenance budgets. And Metro has all of these different pots that it kind of puts money in and some pots you’re not supposed to touch. But now for the first time, because things have gotten so dire, they’re thinking about reaching into certain areas and pulling away and going into other places. So, yeah, I would imagine that if we do get to this scenario, everything is on the chopping block, including jobs. They’re talking about potentially cutting 4000 jobs. And this is a transit agency of about 11,000 workers, you take about 40% of that out of the mix, and you’ve got a big problem. And the other thing there is if you lose thousands of jobs, let’s not forget where Metro was, they were starting to turn a corner with all the maintenance that hadn’t been done in a long time, starting to fix the issues. How many track fires did we talk about? How many unfortunate dangerous situations did we talk about with Metro? Well, all of that was because they took their eye off the ball for a long time and didn’t fix the things that they were supposed to. And then suddenly, it was 40 years later, and everything was aging and everything needed to be fixed. Well, the current administration really took a hard line against a lot of that. That’s why you saw all those shutdowns over the summer. That’s why you saw entire lines being shut down. And they were starting to turn a corner there. The problem is, if you lay off a lot of these people that Metro has brought in, you’re going to lose serious institutional knowledge. And it’s not like you can just go back and say, oh I need the guy who knows how to fix this problem, and go pick them up at a hiring fair. These jobs are hard to find they are highly skilled jobs, including bus and train operators. And if you cut them, it’s not always easy to get them right back.

Tom Temin: And what about the idea of the labor contracts that they have? Because very often these large city and regional authorities that operate in places like New Jersey, in New York and in DC, Virginia and Maryland area, have pretty rich contracts in terms of benefits and retirement. Any thought of restructuring those so they look more like the private sector?

Adam Tuss: Yeah, and that has always been kind of a sticking point with the transit agency because they do have a very strong union, the Amalgamated Transit Union . Local 689 represents most of Metro’s frontline workers, and they have negotiated to their credit, a really good contract for a lot of their frontline employees and they are pretty tough about backing off some of the pay raises or benefits or pensions. Really, the pension is what drains a lot of metros revenue that goes to these frontline workers. So the general manager did mention in a conference call with reporters recently that he was going to try to go to the union and maybe see if there was any wiggle room there. The Metro GM has said that within Metro itself, not the union represented employees, they’re going to freeze pay raises, they’re going to look for ways that they can administratively cut costs. But when you start going to the union and ask them to make some concessions, then it gets a little sticky. We should also say the current general manager was not on the best footing with this transit union, frankly because he came in and took a hard line against a lot of employees, firing some, making tough decisions, and really kind of changing the way that the union has operated within Metro.

Tom Temin: And how long have they got because I imagine agency reopening plans, if they have any, would be in part dependent on whether they think people can get to work or not. How long till Metro hits the cliff?

Adam Tuss: Yeah, exactly. And I asked this question to the general manager. And it’s a good one time because you want to know when these decisions have to be made. Look, if Metro decides anything here, no change would take effect before July. That is the earliest that any of these changes can take effect. The way the metro process works is if they are going to put any of these changes in place, they have to start talking about the now so that they can take it out to public comment, the public always has to have a chance to weigh in on these proposals. Then the Metro board has to debate it, they have to vote on it, it has to go to a final vote. And that’s a process that takes several months. But the drop dead date, and that’s what I had asked the general manager, when will we know if these cuts are coming or not? He says really, it’s the April May timeframe. If there’s been no improvement there in terms of ridership coming back, in terms of vaccines that are working, or in terms of federal stimulus that could be coming — April-May if we’re kind of in the same situation that we’re in right now, well then we could start having really grim and serious discussions about these cuts at Metro.

Tom Temin: I can hardly wait till opening day traffic

Adam Tuss: I know, right?

Tom Temin: Adam Tuss is transportation reporter for NBC News for in Washington. Thanks so much.

Adam Tuss: Thank you, Tom.

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