The second phase of Metrorail’s Silver Line has never had a formal opening date in Loudoun, but the Metro Board of Directors could give up on the idea of opening it before next July amid a budget crunch.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had budgeted for the Silver Line’s extension into Ashburn to start rolling in April. But with systemwide ridership dropping off in the COVID-19 pandemic and federal CARES Act money set to run out in January, the transit authority is looking at a projected $212 million budget gap in the current fiscal year. Some of that Metro management can find, but the Board of Directors will vote on Sept. 16 to send to public hearing a plan to shave $169 million out of the budget.
Those reductions include standardizing 12 minutes between trains on weekdays, reducing the number of trains and operators, closing the system two hours earlier at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday—and delaying the phase two Silver Line opening until at least July 2021.
Originally the Silver Line was planned to open in Loudoun in 2018.
All told, the proposed cutbacks would mean 1,738 layoffs, primarily from reduced weekday train service, continuing reduced bus service rather than restoring it as planned, and delaying some hiring for the Silver Line.
“Unless there’s an infusion of federal money that comes in, we have to do it, and even then I’m a little worried,” said Loudoun Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who serves on the Metro Board of Directors. “The federal money previously required us to keep our entire workforce, and one of the things the Metro board’s been talking about is right-sizing service for what ridership actually is. Unless it’s a tremendous amount of money, it may not be enough.”
Metro, he said, leans heavily on rail ridership to recoup costs. While it is unusual for a public transit agency to fully self-fund—and Metro does not—it does rank highly among major rail transit agencies for cost recovery from train fares. But that also means the drop in rail ridership affects Metro even more deeply.
Another possible threat to Metro’s budget: members of the regional Metro compact not paying their full due. Maryland, Virginia and DC have all see budget crunches during the pandemic. If they don’t meet their full obligation to help fund Metro, it deepens the budget problem.
Part of that budget gap is attributable to the optimistic assumptions about the pandemic the Metro board and management made when they last amended the budget in May. At that time, budget projections assumed the virus would be largely contained, with a vaccine available around the new year and commuters starting to get back into the office and onto the train.
America’s pandemic response has not lived up to those rosy expectations. Now, Metro management is planning based on a resurgence in the virus over the winter and a continued, long-lasting impact on teleworking and commuting. They are planning for ridership to still be at around 20 percent of pre-COVID levels in summer 2022.
While the proposed changes could balance the current year’s budget, they only dig deeper into the already much-larger hole in the next budget. In Fiscal Year 2022 beginning July 1, 2021, Metro management estimates, with no federal aid and a continuing pandemic, there could be up to a $793 million funding gap.
Fortunately, Letourneau said, Loudoun County’s own dollars are not at much risk.
“Our exposure is fairly minimal here,” Letourneau said. “We pay such a small percentage of the overall cost, I’m not very worried from a Loudoun perspective.” The county has also been saving up money to spend on Metro for as long as the Silver Line has been delayed.
The Metro board will vote on Sept. 16 on whether to send the plan to a public hearing, with an eye on finalizing the budget adjustments in December.
Safety Commission Finds ‘Distractions, Fear, Threats’ in Control Center
The budget news follows an audit of Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center, the heart of the Metrorail system, that found that multiple fatal accidents have not served as a wakeup call and the center still operates in an atmosphere of distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions with overworked and undertrained controllers.
The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission is an independent entity tasked with overseeing and enforcing safety improvements in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro. At the beginning of the year, the commission launched an audit of the Rail Operations Control Center or ROCC, which directs all trains and personnel across Metro’s main lines, as well as overseeing signals, elevators and escalators, car maintenance, emergency response and other operations.
Since the audit began in January, the center has seen workers alternating between the primary and backup facility to reduce the chance of passing on the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as a fire that closed the backup facility for several days in May. The commission’s work has included extensive interviews, reviewing documentation, observing operations, and reviewing radio and communications records, among other work.
The commission released some findings in May. Metro’s plans to address those findings, according to the commission, were unsatisfactory, although the director of the operations center at that time was removed.
On Sept. 8, the commission released 21 new findings. Those included looking back at the center’s chaotic response to previous emergencies, such as a fatal accident in 2015 near L’Enfant Plaza Station. A controller at that time told the National Transportation Safety Board of chaos in the operations center, and is quoted saying “the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.”
Among the audit’s numerous finding: “Use of profanities, threats and racial, sexual or other forms of harassment are regular features of the control center’s environment, which makes it difficult for controllers to do their jobs and drives low morale and significant turnover.” The audit also reported that the operations center’s management sought to manipulate safety investigations and threatened controllers with arrest or firing, a lack of adequate staffing, and a variety of other problems.
Despite some steps forward since the commission began its work, the audit reports Metro has not achieved the cultural change necessary in the operations center to keep its riders safe.
Metro is now required to provide plans to correct those findings.