To adapt, WMATA proposed a doomsday scenario of cutting rail service frequency to every 30 minutes, closing stations, limiting buses and laying off employees. For the moment that plan is on hold.
The dire situation is echoed in transit systems across the United States, amid a pandemic which has kept many people working from home or traveling by other means.
The pandemic “has taken a huge toll on the budgets of the transit agencies,” said Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), noting that some systems have seen ridership collapse by as much as 90 percent.
“Certainly the largest cities get the biggest attention because of how large their transit networks are and the number of people they carry,” Skoutelas said.
“But it’s really throughout the country, and it’s agencies and cities of all sizes.”
APTA said ridership fell an average of 76 percent from pre-pandemic levels in mid-2020, presenting a crisis for the sector seen as an important part of the economy in cities that need mass transport to shuttle residents and reduce traffic pollution.
Avoiding the subway
The situation presents a huge dilemma for policymakers.
In cities like Washington, downtown business districts are largely abandoned. Across the US, about 17 million people are receiving unemployment insurance.
In New York, where owning a car is tough, subway ridership at the end of January was down some 70 percent from a year ago, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Other cities are hurting too.
RideKC, which operates in the Kansas City, Missouri region, said its tram system carried just 45,780 passengers in December, less than one-third of the total from the prior year.
APTA estimated that public transit systems face a shortfall of some $39 billion in the next three years to keep operating without layoffs.
That is twice the amount included in President Joe Biden’s Covid rescue plan which proposes $20 billion for the sector, on top of the $14 billion allocated in December and $25 billion last March.
“The pandemic represents an existential threat to public transit jobs, businesses, and service,” Skoutelas said.
“Our request for $39.3 billion is necessary to avoid catastrophic decisions that will hurt our riders, our communities, and the nation.”
Some public transit advocates are hoping for more investment in the sector to help revive urban centers, and are optimistic about the appointment of Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor, as transportation secretary.
More traffic jams?
The fear is that people will turn more to private cars, leading to renewed traffic jams in many cities.
“No one has a crystal ball,” Skoutelas said.
“It’s conceivable that we’re going to get to 20 percent of people perhaps that decide to stay at home to work, or maybe stay at home for a couple of days, two or three days per week.”
For some longtime public transport commuters, the future is not yet clear.
Thea Bryan, a suburban Washington resident who rode the transit system for years but has been working mostly at home since the start of the pandemic, has been making trips to her downtown office by car.
Bryan said traffic has been light and parking easy, making travel by car preferable to Metro, which has reduced service.
“I can imagine” returning to the Metro, “if things get back to normal,” she said.