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Coronavirus stimulus: DC public transit faces 'unimaginable' cuts if Congress doesn't act

Jessica Smith
·Chief Political Correspondent
·4 min read

As lawmakers try to agree on another stimulus package before leaving Washington for the holidays, the public transit system in the nation’s capital is preparing for “unimaginable” cuts to jobs and service unless Congress intervenes.

Paul Wiedefeld, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager and CEO, spoke to Yahoo Finance about the proposed cuts.

Metro is facing a nearly $500 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, as ridership has plummeted by as much as 90%, according to Wiedefeld. To try and fill the gap, Metro is proposing eliminating weekend rail service, cutting 2,400 more jobs, closing 19 rail stations, significantly curbing weekday rail service and slashing bus service to 45% of pre-pandemic levels.

“We're nowhere near anything we've ever had to deal with,” said Wiedefeld. “We're not crying fire here.”

If the measures go into effect, they would have serious consequences across the DC metro area and beyond. In a press conference to unveil a bipartisan relief plan earlier this week, Sen. Mark Warner (D., Virg.) told reporters the cuts would have a “dramatic effect on the functions of federal government.”

“In the Washington region, the Metro is part of our culture. It’s what we do. It's how we make financial decisions,” said Wiedefeld. “The economy, the land use, where people choose to live — all that's driven around these systems. And to think that that all of a sudden goes away after having been here almost 50 years for us, and in other communities much longer, is just unimaginable.”

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 02:  Wearing masks to reduce the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic, commuters step in and out of a Metro train car at the Metro Center station December 02, 2020 in Washington, DC. Due in part to the drastic decline in ridership because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Metro is proposing to cut weekend rail service, close 19 of 91 stations, shorten hours of operation, slash bus routes by more than half and lay off 2,400 workers starting in July to meet a $494.5 million deficit in the fiscal year. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
DC Metro is proposing to cut weekend rail service, close 19 of 91 stations, shorten hours of operation, slash bus routes by more than half and lay off 2,400 workers starting in July to meet a $494.5 million deficit in the fiscal year. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The bipartisan plan would put $45 billion toward transportation, some of that going to public transit. It would also dedicate $160 billion for state and local governments. Lawmakers are still working on the final version of the bill, so details could change before its expected release next week.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still pushing his much more targeted proposal, that doesn’t include help for transit agencies. State and local aid has been a sticking point throughout negotiations, as Republicans argue against “bailouts” for what they see as cities that have budgeted badly.

“It's not a Democratic, Republican thing. It's almost common sense. This is not something that any of us have planned for, could plan for, [or] have lived through,” said Wiedefeld.

Throughout the pandemic, public transit agencies around the country have begged Congress for more relief — saying federal help is critical for survival as people work remotely, spend more time at home and avoid public transit for fear of exposure. Last month officials at New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it might have to cut service between 40% and 50% and lay off thousands of workers to address a budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus. The MTA asked the federal government for $12 billion in aid.

“It isn't about giving us money. It's about serving the communities. It's about rebuilding the communities,” said Wiedefeld. “When you look at some of the major metropolitan areas, they don't work without us [transit providers] is the reality. They don’t function.”

“It is part of the economic fabric, he added. “It's part of the social fabric. It serves people that need service because they have no other option — but yet they're the backbone, as we've seen during this pandemic. They are the grease that keeps things moving.”

Metro has already reduced service and is seeking to eliminate 1,400 positions this fiscal year. If 2,400 more people are laid off, the agency will have lost almost a third of its workforce.

“These are the people that literally, they are scared. I don't blame them. They're the ones out there every day...moving people that have to be moved, to keep everything that we have barely going, going,” said Wiedefeld. “We should be building them up now. I mean, you helped us during our greatest time of need. Now let's help you. Why are we now going to basically change your livelihood or put you out on the street?”

Wiedefeld said the proposed cuts could be rolled back if ridership increases as a vaccine gets distributed or if stimulus eventually comes through, but he has to plan for the current reality.

The Metro Board will discuss the budget cuts on Friday, seek public comment in January and February and make the final decision in March.

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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