Demand for air travel is approaching pre-pandemic levels and the outlook for the region’s airports looks positive. For the region’s subway and bus transit system, the situation is far more complicated.
Those were some of the takeaways from a May 10 discussion on regional transportation hosted by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce at Dulles International Airport. The leaders of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metro, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles and Reagan National airports, gave presentations about the future of the agencies and their role in the regional economy and answered questions from the audience.
For Dulles Airport, which is located primarily in Loudoun County, the immediate future looks bright, according to MWAA president and CEO John E. Potter. Passenger levels at Dulles are now approaching pre-pandemic levels, he said, and this summer will see record use of the airport by United Airlines. And since Phase II of the Metrorail Silver Line opened in November, more airlines have expressed interest in ramping up operations there now that the airport is connected by rail to D.C., he added.
For Metro, the situation is far more complicated. Randy Clarke, MWATA’s general manager and CEO, and Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau, who sits on the MWATA board of directors, said there are many positive signs for the 12,000-employee subway-and-bus system, but a looming “fiscal cliff” presents what could be an existential challenge.
Clarke, formerly the head of the transit system in Austin, Texas, was hired in July 2022 and charged with turning around a system that had for years faced criticism over its management, safety, budgetary and maintenance practices. In less than 10 months on the job, he has overseen a crackdown on fare evaders and crime in the system — police patrols have increased by 70% — along with opening the last Silver Line stations, restoring 7000-series trains and ramping up service to meet post-pandemic demand and attract more commuters and day-trippers back to the system.
Clarke’s work has been “nothing short of astounding,” Matt Letourneau, who sits on the MWATA board along with representing the Dulles District on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said at the event.
Locally, ridership on the Phase II section of the Silver Line (Reston Town Center to Ashburn) stands at about 35,000 trips per week, Clarke said. The Dulles Airport station is the busiest station in Phase II, followed by Ashburn at the end of the line.
Clarke was optimistic about efforts to draw riders back to Metro as the system emerges from the pandemic, which caused ridership levels to plunge as many office workers worked from home. “It was pretty bleak,” he said of the pandemic and its effect on Metro.
“I believe this region cannot succeed without a great Metro,” Clarke added, promising to “get control of the system back” from lawbreakers and more broadly restore the public’s trust in the system’s leadership.
Even though the work-from-home trend has persisted in some sectors — especially for federal government workers — Metrorail ridership has increased 55% since he took on his current role, Clarke said; April 4 saw the most riders in any single day since the pandemic began.
And while ridership on weekdays overall is only about half of what it was before the pandemic, there are promising signs; Capital One earlier this month ordered all its McLean headquarters employees back to the office, he pointed out, which resulted in an immediate spike in ridership on that section of the Silver Line. Ridership levels will increase significantly throughout the entire system if other employers — especially the federal government — soon require more workers to resume their commutes into the city, he said.
On weekends, the current situation is more positive, with ridership about 80% of what it was before the pandemic. Clarke said that those statistics point to a need to make Metro more attractive to non-commuters. “We need to serve all customers through all times of day. … All those trips are important,” he said.
While the budget the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, is set and fully funded, the specter of a massive shortfall for the next budget cycle has put a damper on otherwise positive signs.
While transit systems across the country have faced similar ridership challenges in the wake of the pandemic, the reasons for Metro’s expected operating shortfall are systemic and specific to Metro’s funding structure, Clarke and Letourneau said.
Unlike most major transit systems, Metro doesn’t have a dedicated funding source like a regional sales tax. The idea isn’t new to the region — the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, for instance, takes in more than $300 million per year for regional road projects from a 0.7% sales tax. Instead, Metro relies on subsidies from Washington, D.C., and local governments in Maryland and Virginia to fund about half its costs.
Loudoun’s share of operational and capital costs will total about $20 million in the upcoming fiscal year. A portion of those contributions come from the Metrorail Service District, funded by an extra real estate tax established in 2012 for properties near the county’s Metro stations; data centers make up most of the value of those properties.
Before the pandemic, most of the other half of Metro’s funding came from fares and other revenue. But when demand plummeted during the pandemic, the U.S. Congress authorized more than $2 billion in emergency funding to cover the shortfall fare revenue. That extra funding will run out next year and leave WMATA with a projected $738 million operating deficit if regional leaders don’t agree on a solution.
Clarke emphasized the gravity of the budget challenges and urged governments in the DMV region to find a long-term solution. Cutting $738 million in expenses would likely mean shutting down the entire Metrorail system, or the entire Metrobus system, Clarke said. “We’ve got to get real serious. We have to do a whole lot of hard work,” he said. While Congress has allocated some funds for infrastructure projects, it’s unlikely that federal legislatures will have any appetite to help fund Metro’s operating costs, he added.
Letourneau added that, as serious as the situation is, “it’s also an opportunity to fix something that’s been broken since day one.”
Both Clarke and Letourneau pointed to Metrorail’s central role in promoting economic development in Northern Virginia. They argued that stability and predictability in Metro’s funding structure would encourage economic growth by eliminating uncertainty for investors. Failing to come up with a permanent funding solution would constitute an economic shock to the entire region, they said.
Even with the uncertainty around future budgets, Metro has already spurred many successes in Northern Virginia, they emphasized. Virginia Tech is building a $1 billion “Innovation Campus” next to a new developer-funded Metrorail station in Alexandria, part of a larger tech-centered development. The recently opened Ashburn and Innovation Center Metrorail stations have for two decades been at the center of Loudoun’s pitch to attract major office-based employers to the county and development nearby has accelerated recently.
“Wherever Metro goes, the community grows,” Clarke said. “It’s good for all of us to solve this structural [funding] problem.”
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