2020 | Transit

UPDATED: Proposed Metro rail, bus cuts ‘draconian,’ a ‘disgrace,’ County Council says

Officials call on Congress for more fiscal relief for transit

Pictured is the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station in July 2016.

File photo

This story was updated at 4:35 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2020, to clarify that there is a budget gap of nearly $500 million. It was also updated at 6:17 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2020, to include additional information.

With a budget gap of nearly $500 million and expected operating deficit of $1.7 billion, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has announced plans to terminate weekend Metro service, cut bus routes and close some rail stations.

Montgomery County officials pushed back on the proposal on Wednesday, calling the budget cuts “draconian” and a “disgrace.”

At a virtual press conference on Wednesday afternoon, County Council members criticized the budget proposal, which calls for shutting down Metro service at 9 p.m. on weekdays and running trains on rail lines every 30 minutes. The cutbacks are part of WMATA’s proposed budget that goes into effect in July.

Of the 13 Metro stations in Montgomery County, only one is included in the 19 that would be closed — Grosvenor-Strathmore in North Bethesda.

There are 25 Metrobus routes in the county. Of those, six lines would be eliminated or have significant changes:
● College Park-White Flint bus line (C8) would be eliminated
● Connecticut Avenue-Maryland bus line (L8) would be eliminated
● Veirs Mill Road bus line (Q1, 2, 4, 5, 6) would be eliminated, but a modified C4 route would replace service on Veirs Mill Road. All remaining stops would be covered by other service
● River Road bus line (T2) would be eliminated
● Colesville-Ashton bus line (Z2) would be eliminated
● Calverton-Westfarm line (Z6) would be eliminated and a modified Z8 line would replace the segment from Columbia Pike and Industrial Parkway to Broadbirch Drive and Cherry Hill Road.

Other bus routes would have modifications, as well.

County Council Member Evan Glass said the proposal’s cuts would make transit essentially “unusable” for those who don’t have a choice but to take it.

“It’s our essential workers who rely on public transportation to get to their jobs and many of them have shift work that requires them to commute early mornings, late nights and weekends,” he said. “They’re going to staff our hospitals, our grocery stores and our ensuing homes, just among many other places of business.”

WMATA’s fiscal year 2022 budget will take effect on July 1, 2021.

According to the WMATA presentation, ridership is projected to be at 34% of pre-pandemic levels in the next year and the budget goal is to preserve an “affordable bare bones service network.”

Glass commissioned a report on transit service in the county from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight. The report, released in October, showed that nearly 80% of Ride-On bus riders are people of color and that 47% of the riders reported annual household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

“These demographics of Ride-On are essentially the same as the demographics of our Metrobus riders. They’re nearly identical. It shows the population that would bear the brunt of the proposed service cuts,” Glass said. “We know that access to good public transportation is an issue of economic fairness.”

According to Glass, about 65,000 people boarded the Metro’s Red Line and around 55,000 county residents rode Metrobus on a daily basis before the pandemic.

County Executive Marc Elrich said during a media briefing Wednesday afternoon that if the cuts go through, it will be challenging to make up for what Metro provides.

“The Metro is pretty much irreplaceable going into the District,” he said.

Elrich said the federal government needs to step up and provide financial relief for transit systems.

“This is something the federal government and only the federal government has the capacity to do,” he said.

According to a presentation WMATA’s board is scheduled to discuss on Friday, there are several operating risks from the cuts, which include:
● impact on the ability to respond to future demand growth
● further reduction in ridership, social distancing guidelines for reduced capacity
● limited capacity to reduce support services to levels necessary to balance the operating budget.

In mid-September, WMATA brought up potential service cuts that could be necessary if federal coronavirus relief funding ran out, which is expected to happen early next year.

In a Sept. 18 press release, General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld said that federal assistance replaced fare revenue.

“If that funding isn’t there after December, Metro will need to implement measures that hurt the region’s economic recovery and adversely impact essential workers,” he said.

Fare revenue from Metrorail usually make up about 28% of the system’s total operating budget, the press release said.

Council Member Craig Rice said during the press conference on Tuesday that Black and Brown residents will be the most affected by the transit cuts.

“There is no question at all that our folks of lower socioeconomic status and people of color are primarily the ones who use our mass transit system …,” he said. “I don’t understand why folks are — in a time like this, in the midst of a global pandemic — cutting the lifeline that exists between those who are trying to get to their jobs and make sure that they can still put food on their table and take care of their families in the midst of economic uncertainty. It’s just unfathomable to me.”

Council Member Will Jawando said at the conference Tuesday that people will be left behind through the cuts.

“Congress must act now to extend additional money. I know Vice President-elect [Kamala] Harris and President-elect [Joe] Biden know this is a priority,” he said. “I know our federal delegation know that this is a priority. But this is an important moment because we need to make it clear … the impact that this is going to have on our residents in the region and our economy.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.