With the uncertainty of the pandemic, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) management has needed to reevaluate their future plans and expenses in order to balance their budget. Prior to the pandemic, WMATA’s budget for the next year proposed increases in metro fares, weekend service, and late-night rail service. They postponed these plans to cover expenses that have emerged due to the pandemic.
In previous years, Metro had seen a steady increase in ridership. However, the pandemic has forced WMATA to decrease costs by “closing 19 stations” and limiting service to the open stations and existing Metrobus routes (George 2020). Since the start of the pandemic, rail ridership has decreased by 95% and bus ridership has decreased by 70%, further causing metro to incur a deficit of more than $67 million (George 2020). WMATA continues to lose $2.5 million per day in lost fare revenue. In order to comply with CDC regulations, the agency spent $17 million in personal protective equipment, contributing further to the deficit (George 2020). The agency undertook more thorough yet expensive sanitation of train cars and buses.
To offset costs and avoid furloughs and layoffs of employees, the CARES Act allocated $876 million to WMATA. According to the Washington Business Journal, a portion of these funds will be used to cover some of the contributions that D.C. Maryland, and Virginia pay as a result of the regional operating agreement with WMATA (Capriel 2020). The remainder of funds will be directed toward wages and benefits. Because of the CARES Act, WMATA will be able to balance the budget for this year but will need to postpone many planned improvements for next year.
Despite the additional funding, WMATA has not considered how other expenses will be funded. A GAO report mentions that WMATA needs to continue to address significant rail system safety problems such as track defects and electrical fires (Goldstein 2019). In previous years, these serious safety problems have caused WMATA to lose revenue from extensive and prolonged rail maintenance. Furthermore, GAO mentions that WMATA has not thoroughly assessed the impacts of “other risks such as non-electrical track fires, which represent about 30% of all fires on the system, or other factors, such as resources or track time” (Goldstein 2019). In addition, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has identified 118 safety risks that WMATA needs to manage in order to mitigate safety concerns, but WMATA has only resolved 99 of the identified risks (“BTS Releases WMATA” 2019). Although WMATA conducted limited construction during the pandemic, these other identified safety risks will need to be budgeted for the coming years.
The article does not consider other measures WMATA will need to take in order to practice social distancing and their associated costs. NBC mentions that in addition to more cleaning, employees will need to ”start placing markings on trains and buses where people should stand” (Tuss 2020). Train cars will only permit 20 people per rail car at a time which is under one-fifth of capacity (Tuss 2020). As a result, WMATA will require approximately five times the regular buses and train service to carry customers without crowding. Additional costs and new processes could arise with the implementation of these new safeguards such as hiring more employees to regulate train car capacity. Similarly, a BBC News article reports that Britain’s National Rail has partnered with a tech startup to develop a “busy station” warning alert to notify travelers if a railway station is overcrowded (“Coronavirus: National Rail” 2020). WMATA may seek a similar solution to insure riders safety and keep riders in the communication channel.
In the coming months and years, the uncertainty of the pandemic and its lasting effects will require WMATA to constantly revise their budget and processes. With the decrease in ridership and the reliance of telework, WMATA needs to consider how it will continue to cover their rising expenses while still undertaking projects such as mandatory repairs. Lastly, WMATA will need to assess the additional costs associated with creating infrastructure and processes to maintain social distancing.
“BTS Releases WMATA Close Call Program Report.” U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, October 28, 2019. https://www.bts.gov/newsroom/bts-releases-wmata-close-call-program-report.
Capriel, Jonathan. “Despite Trump’s Tweet, Metro Allocations from CARES Act Not Only Benefiting D.C.” Washington Business Journal, May 19, 2020. https://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/2020/05/19/trump-tweets-metro-is-getting-cares-act-funding.html.
“Coronavirus: National Rail to Offer ‘Busy Station’ Alerts.” BBC News, June 5, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52937302?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/ce1qrvlellmt/transport&link_location=live-reporting-story.
George, Justin. “Metro Shifts Budget, Recommends Deferring New Initiatives to Cover Pandemic’s Impact.” The Washington Post. WP Company, May 12, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/metro-shifts-budget-recommends-deferring-new-initiatives-to-cover-pandemics-impact/2020/05/12/82dc3d32-93ac-11ea-9f5e-56d8239bf9ad_story.html.
Goldstein, Mark. “Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: Actions Needed to Strengthen Capital Planning and Track Preventive Maintenance Program.” U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO). U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO), January 31, 2019. https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696672.pdf
Tuss, Adam. “Metro Plans Year-Long, Gradual Recovery From Coronavirus Restrictions.” NBC4 Washington, May 11, 2020. https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/metro-plans-year-long-gradual-recovery-from-coronavirus-restrictions/2299020/.