When the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority opens the new Silver Line stations in Loudoun early next year, Metrorail is expected to look very different than in the past.
As Metro works to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic—while experiencing about an 80% drop in ridership, and operating with a budget that was only balanced with $723 million in relief funding—the agency’s leadership is wondering whether it has seen a permanent change in who is riding the rails. Before, Metro service was geared toward the rush-hour commute to and from work. But today, said General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld, 80% of all trips across the system aren’t for work.
“What we haven’t done is necessarily provide the quality of service for those types of trips,” Wiedefeld told members of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors during their May 25 Transit Summit. “We’ve provided a higher quality of service for those peak, to-work trips, but again, people may be working different hours than they’ve done, and they may be doing other trips.”
That will mean taking another look at who Metro is serving.
“It’s understanding the marketplace—trying to understand what the marketplace is so that we don’t put out service that reflects where the world isn’t,” Wiedefeld said. “So, if the new paradigm is different, then we’ve got to make sure that we’re adjusted to that, and not just what we did pre-pandemic.”
It could also mean transit in the DC regions looks more like it does around the world.
“When you look internationally, that is what transit does,” Wiedefeld said. “In the U.S., we tend to be much more peak, work-oriented, but in international travel, it tends to be a product that you use for all types of purpose at all times of the day, and I think we need to start to think that way, and I think the public is going to ask for that.”
He said that would have to mean being able to hop on a train within a few minutes at any time, rather than showing up to a station and waiting 20 minutes for a train to arrive.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who serves on the Metro board, also said that authority leaders are looking to simplify Metro’s rate structure.
But no matter who is riding Metro in the future, Wiedefeld and supervisors agreed, somebody has to pay for it. Until recently, Metro was the only major transit agency in the country that didn’t have a dedicated source of funding, such as a dedicated tax—funding was on a year-to-year basis from each of the participating jurisdictions. Now, there is a dedicated capital funding source, but it doesn’t grow with inflation and costs.
But the worst offenders on underfunding Metro are still the people on Capitol Hill. Although Washington, DC is at the heart of Metrorail, and a large chunk of the federal workforce gets to work on the trains, Congress has not provided major capital funding for Metro, only a contribution for operating costs. That has been felt particularly keenly as other jurisdictions have made major investments to catch up to years of neglected maintenance and improvements.
“The entire country relies on Metro whether they know it or not because they’re moving the federal workforce,” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
Currently, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is building the Silver Line extension into Loudoun, expects to be substantially finished with that work in the third quarter of this year. When the stations actually open to riders will depend on how long testing takes. According to Wiedefeld’s presentation to Loudoun supervisors, Metro assumes two months, plus another 90 days of work between testing and the day passengers can step aboard a train in Ashburn, putting the likely date for a Silver Line grand opening in early 2022.