Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Taking the D.C. Metro during the COVID-19 pandemic was a very eerie experience. As Metro ridership during the pandemic was cut in half, the trains often felt so empty that they almost seemed abandoned. However, the unsettling feeling remains even now since Metro ridership has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
This is why the recent fare increase is not much of a surprise for those who have seen the pandemic’s financial burden on the Metro system. While the federal government bailed out Metro in 2020, the cost has now been put back on riders.
While Metro hasn’t bounced back to pre-pandemic demand, access to public transportation for 4 million Americans remains an essential service, whether or not the system is profitable.
Current funding provided by local and state governments is not enough to maintain the system. This need is especially dire as telework options decline, meaning more employees will use Metro once again. In order for Metro to continue serving the D.C. community, it needs a more stable source of funding via federal subsidies.
Maryland, Virginia and D.C. governments dedicated massive amounts of funding to Metro in the past, which was raised through taxes and state transportation funds. While Metro has finally received the funds that public policy research has supported since 1976, it’s still not sufficient. The existing funding only covers capital investments, which are primarily to improve the system’s infrastructure. However, there is no direct funding resource for operating expenses, which include employee salaries and benefits, energy costs and maintenance.
Right now, the money for these operating expenses comes from passenger revenue, advertising and local subsidies. Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro also received federal relief funding in the most recent three fiscal years, but these funds are expected to run out in fiscal year 2024.
Surrounding local and state governments are also pressured to subsidize Metro’s operating expenses that aren’t funded through passenger fare revenue. The federal government needs to step up and fill the gap so that states and cities don’t have to pinch annual budgets.
This is very needed because annual subsidies do not have a dedicated fund and increases can only be requested by 3 percent each year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal funding did just that. In the coming year, Metro is expecting massive deficits, even if ridership returns to pre-pandemic levels.
With strained budgets, Metro has sought to cut service. This would disproportionately hurt low-income communities that depend on public transportation the most. Since many D.C. commuters rely on public transportation to get to work, losing service could make many jobs inaccessible to people of lower incomes.
Federal funding could cover operating expenses for areas which are costly to service but give an equitable distribution of services. Instead of limiting service to areas with fewer customers, if Metro has subsidized operating expenses, it could provide better access to public transportation. This is especially important when one out of five rail riders and over half of all bus riders don’t own a car. Reduced access to public transportation would seriously hurt these people’s ability to commute or travel.
Furthermore, better funding for Metro should be a particular concern for the federal government. Federal employees make up a large portion of Metro riders. While telework has enabled federal employees to stay at home and off the trains, the government’s push to return to in-person work means Metro is seeing a resurgence of riders. If Metro is unable to handle this, it will only be harmful to the federal government itself.
Federal funding for public transportation may seem unnecessary for the cost it would create, but it’s an essential service for many and plays an important role in the local economy. Letting Metro continually face budget cuts takes away these services and is a disinvestment from the community.
Federal subsidies helped Metro throughout the pandemic, but the issues it faces are not solely related to COVID-19. Federal funding should be used to optimally service the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region. With federal workers, commuters and the economy relying on public transportation, federal subsidies to the Metro system are necessary.
Kyra Freeman is a sophomore philosophy, politics and economics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.