Public transportation

The Head of D.C.'s Long-Troubled Metro System Says Another Federal Bailout Is Needed To Stave Off Apocalyptic Service Cuts

D.C.'s public transit agency has already received close to $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.


After years of mounting delays, falling ridership, and the occasional fire, it appears that a new era of malfunctioning is nye for Washington, D.C.'s perennially troubled Metro rail transit system.

On Monday, Paul Wiedefeld—general manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), which runs most of the D.C.-area's buses and trains—said that his agency was facing a $500 million* shortfall as a result of falling ridership during the pandemic. That budget gap would necessitate huge service cuts, according to a budget proposal from Wiedefeld that will be presented to WMATA's board this Friday.

Those cuts would include total elimination of weekend Metro rail service, cutting some 20 bus lines, staggering trains half an hour apart, and the closure of 19 rail stations. Weekday rail service would also end at 9 p.m. rather than the current 11 p.m.

Over the past month, rail ridership on Metro has been down around 80 to 90 percent of where it was at this point last year. Bus ridership was down by about 50 to 60 percent on weekdays, and down about 30 percent on weekends.

Even before coronavirus, transit ridership in the D.C. area has been well-below its peak thanks to a number of factors, from falling costs of driving to the deteriorating quality of public transit itself, not to mention the rise of alternatives like ridesharing and microtransit.

The idea of such drastic service cuts has already provoked D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to call for additional federal aid.

"WMATA's deeply troubling proposal is another reminder of the critical need for federal stimulus to revive our economy and to preserve our way of life," said Bowser in a statement released on Twitter. "Regardless of party and ideology, we must once again come together to save Metro."

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in late March dedicated $25 billion in funding to public transit agencies, of which $876 million went to WMATA, according to the Washington Business Journal.

As far back as late July, Wiedefeld has been warning that that money would not be enough to get his agency—which is reportedly losing $2 million per weekday—through the end of the year.

WMATA isn't the only transit agency with its hand out right now. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has asked Congress for a full $12 billion in aid to get it through 2021. The American Public Transportation Association is requesting $32 billion in additional federal assistance for the entire public transportation sector.

Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation expert with the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website), says that given the staggering declines in ridership D.C.'s Metro system has seen in 2020, service cuts shouldn't be off the table.

People for whom taking transit is optional, says Feigenbaum, are going to be driving to work or working remote for the foreseeable future given the health concerns over taking mass transit to a crowded office.

"Because of COVID they probably do need to cut some routes," he says. "The transportation choice riders are not coming back anytime soon."

That spells trouble for WMATA, given how much the agency has prioritized those transit choice riders pre-coronavirus by building out rail lines to the suburbs instead of building up reserves or improving bus service for transit-dependent riders.

"This is sort of an emergency, so I understand why more aid is needed, but as a condition of any additional aid, I'd like to see some changes from WMATA," says Feigenbaum. "I'd like to see changes in some of the union policy, I'd like to see a serious plan to cut some service that is [underutilized], I'd want to see some more contracting out of services."

Getting operating costs under control by cutting superfluous routes, he says, would reduce how much aid would be required and allow more of it to be focused on the riders who need transit the most.

Others have proposed more radical solutions. Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute has suggested totally shutting down D.C.'s rail transit system, and replacing it all with bus service where necessary.

That's probably not going to happen, and could well be too drastic a measure if ridership is set to rebound significantly after the pandemic.

Another solution would be to eliminate D.C.'s heavy-handed regulation of microtransit options like dockless scooters and electric bike services, so that service cuts don't leave former riders with no other transportation.

That wouldn't be a panacea, but it would give some folks an option other than an ailing transit system few are willing to ride at the moment.

Correction: This post has been corrected to note that WMATA is facing a $500 million budget shortfall. 

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  1. Thankfully, the rails will be greased in keeping the money flowing for one of America’s most important public transport system, now that The Era of Biden is upon us.

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    2. I fail to see how a city’s failing public transport is MY

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  2. The article is light on budget detail, but I will hazard a guess that it is heavy on wages and salaries, so service cuts are not going to do much to help if they don’t lay off administrators. Which will never happen.

    1. Oh, here it is:

      FY2021 operating expenses through Q1 were $479.1 million of which: PERSONNEL EXPENSES $333.9M

      2/3 of their operating expenses are salaries. Reductions in services are not going to save much…

      1. Metro is also proposing to cut 2,400 positions through attrition, buyouts and layoffs on top of 1,400 the agency is seeking to eliminate this year.
        Only one person on each platform holding a clipboard and talking sports.

        1. One usually sits in a kiosk, and one is paid to be useless by the turnstiles.

        2. Apparently they have 13,000 employees so that’s a decent cut.

      2. Boy, I bet the upkeep on the trains is just super, super amazing. Seems amazing that a TRANSPORTATION company would spend less than 1/3 of their income on, you know, the equipment.

        1. From what I’ve heard of train crashes on the Metro, as well as complaints about the conditions, they probably have NOT been paying enough on maintenance for a long time. That’s typical of government projects.

          It’s over thirty years since I’ve been in the DC area. Back then the trains were new and quite nice. I took the family to the Smithsonian a couple of times on the Metro, and the only complaint about that trip was the massive traffic jams between Warrenton, VA and the nearest Metro station – even on weekends. It took much longer to drive to the Metro than to ride the rest of the distance.

          But that was only for the Smithsonian. Want to get to the National Zoo (by which I don’t mean Congress – this time)? That was something like change trains, change to a bus, change buses… When my kids were small, they loved zoos, and they’ve been to the zoo in every big city we visited, except DC. Driving in the DC area was just too messed up, and so were the other transportation options outside of the Metro trains.

          In the USA, mass transit by train is not primarily intended as a way of getting around, but as a way that those who would be our masters have of controlling where we go and when we go there. With the low American population density, nearly all passenger train systems are bound to run at a loss (and even in NYC and Boston where the population is dense enough, corruption and incompetence usually turn profits into loss), but subways and light rail provide political cover for taking money from roads and cutting back the bus routes…

      3. Even at $333 million/year, $500 billion would cover 1,500 years of salaries!

  3. Fill it in with sand.
    Fire all the bureaucrats.
    Oh, and maybe, just maybe, get rid of all the damn shutdown bullshit.

    1. Fill it with bureaucrats. Then fill it with sand.

    2. Fire all the bureaucrats.
      Let me find my flamethrower.

  4. Bailey is asking for billions in government handouts for vaccines so whining about bailouts for dc rail means nothing.

  5. his agency was facing a $500 billion shortfall

    A WHAT now?

    1. $500 million

  6. Off Apocalyptic Service Cuts

    I’m going to need a definition of terms here.

    1. That’s the one where Martin Sheen travels down the blue line on a top secret mission to kill a rogue colonel.

      1. Is that the one where an addled Michael Moore is at the end of the line, telling Sheen that Biden is clear in his mind… but his soul is mad… he’s dying… I think, he hates all this. He hates it… but… the man’s a… he reads poetry out loud, alright? In a voice…a voice… he likes you ’cause you’re still alive.. he’s got plans for you… nah, nah, I’m not gonna help you, you’re gonna help him, man. I mean what’re they gonna say man when he’s gone, huh? ’cause he dies, when it dies, he dies… what’re they gonna say about him.. what… they gonna say he was a kind man.. he was a wise man… he had plans, he had wisdom? BULLSHIT MAN! Am I gonna be the one that’s gonna set him straight? Look at me, WRONG!

        1. Charlie don’t ride the subway!

          1. I love the smell of electrical fires in the morning.

            1. Smells like…overtime.

  7. service cuts when no one is riding who ever thought of such an idea

    1. Hey. There are about 85,000 rail trips (not riders) on a weekday out of a metro population of 6+ million. We need to keep the 1% happy.

  8. So a bunch of DC bureaucrats can’t get to work?

    Is that such a bad thing?

    1. They’ll get paid even if they’re not working. If we _could_ fire them, we’d still be supporting them with unemployment and welfare.

      OTOH, most of the time it’s better to pay them for not working than to pay them for the work they do.

  9. $500 billion shortfall

    That’s a lot of money for one fiscal year.

    1. Can’t a man have dreams?

    2. Each rider gets his own private car, complete with chef, waiter, and comely attendant.

  10. It’s too late. The fake economy of printing money is eclipsing the actual economy of voluntary transactions.

    You know what happens from here.

    1. Kamala Harris sees The Way and leaves the White Man she Sleeps With?

    1. What will all the Trump supporters who claim that _Reason_ is too anti-Trump say?

  11. It’s a big thing :- Elimination of weekend Metro rail service, cutting some 20 bus lines .

  12. Think of the union votes, I mean, children!

  13. Mismanagement, nepotism, corruption were all exposed in an audit a couple years ago. To address maintenance that wasn’t being done money was allocated to expand the maintenance facility but nothing done about those that had one person clock in for a whole crew and none of them showed up to work. It is run like a crime syndicate, speak up and your gone. Join in the graft and you fit right in.

    1. Finally some one said it. What government agency, or department that isn’t mismanaged, and wasteful. Cities like n.y. chicago, l.a. and d.c. are typical dysfunctional liberal dem-wits. Isn’t their money why worry about it.

  14. I am also running a $500 billion shortfall this year, if they are giving out cash.

  15. is nye

    Is that Bill Nye, the Science Guy™?

    Or should that be nigh?

  16. Sounds like a lot of public transportation is getting a much needed reprieve, and should be using this period to reevaluate and perform long overdue maintenance.

    Nah, just gimme gimme. They’ve stopped even pretending to polish the turd, and now just proclaim it to be thus.

  17. Bureaucrats have proven incompetent to run a railroad. Sell it at an absolute auction. If it’s viable, it will stay open. If not, liquidate it and let the land be put to better use.

    1. It won’t be viable. Except for NYC, Boston, and possibly Chicago, the population density needed for commuter rail to pay it’s operating expenses doesn’t exist in the USA. Even there, it won’t be possible for a private company to step in and get the trains running at even financial break-even.

      First, the trains and rails are in bad shape. The only government agencies that sometimes keep up with maintenance are military units, where the guys in charge expect that sooner or later, they must go to war with those machines – but the armed services always have to fight Congress for the budget to keep their stuff in good repair. A private investor who actually has the financial and management capabilities to take on a job like this, will investigate the condition of the equipment, estimate the cost of catching up on the repairs versus the rather limited revenues you can collect from riders, and realize that the ROI is negative.

      Second, there’s only one work force in town with the skills to run the trains and buses – and they have lived all their lives in a culture of unionization, featherbedding, and corruption. You can’t change them, you can’t gradually replace them without the new guys learning the same bad habits, and firing and replacing the entire work force at once would violate pro-union federal laws, cost massive amounts for training, shut down the system for months during training, and have politicians after your hide both for the shutdown and the firings.

      Third, in Chicago a large enterprise just isn’t going to be tolerated until it joins in the corruption. I don’t know about NYC and Boston, but I’d be surprised if they aren’t the same.

  18. $500 billion shortfall?!! How incompetent do you have to be to have a $500 billion shortfall?!

  19. “Paul Wiedefeld … said that his agency was facing a $500 billion shortfall … budget gap.”

    How much money is that?

    It’s $93,950/capita for every man, woman and child in the Washington Metro Area.

    Spread over the entire US a population, it’s $1,523/capita.

    Spread among WMATA’s 13,000 employees, it’s $38.46 million/employee.

    Spread among WMATA’s 626 thousand daily riders (2019), it’s equal to $800,000 per trip.

    Based on the highest ridership day in November (i. e., pandemic influenced), it’s $1.6 million/daily round trip rider.

    Randal O’Toole hit the nail on the head. WMATA a should be permanently shut down.

    1. See the correction at the end of the article: It’s $500 million, not billion. Remove 3 digits from each of your numbers, and there’s something else wrong with your “per ride” calculation. But that’s still $38,000 per employee. It’s still $1.53 per American, including at least 300 million people who will never go to DC.

      The normal pre-COVID 626,000 daily riders = 228 million/year, so the losses are $2.19 per rider per day. That might not sound like much, but remember that this is _after_ subsidies that probably amount to more per ride than the ticket cost. Now they want more subsidies…

      If I were writing Constitutional Amendments, I’d consider one forbidding anyone to be a permanent resident of the capital city. Politicians would be forced to return to their state after a few terms. Agencies would be headquartered elsewhere and send a few people on business trips to DC when needed. Restaurateurs would have to live across the river, and staff with temporary workers and commuters. Lobbyists would have to spend as much time commuting as lobbying.

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