Ef­fects spread: Metro of­fi­cials are wor­ried the shut­down is cut­ting into rev­enue.

Agency may be forced to ask local ju­ris­dic­tions for more money

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY FAIZ SID­DIQUI

Metro of­fi­cials are con­cerned the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down is cut­ting into the agency’s rev­enue as the sys­tem that car­ries a siz­able share of the fed­eral work­force runs full ser­vice de­spite thou­sands of em­ploy­ees stay­ing home on fur­lough.

If the shut­down per­sists, Metro board mem­bers said, the agency may be forced to ask local ju­ris­dic­tions for more money to sup­port its op­er­at­ing bud­get, scale back ser­vice to re­coup some of its costs or find sav­ings else­where.

Metro has de­clined to re­lease data on the im­pact of the shut­down; of­fi­cials say they want to gather a fuller picture be­fore is­su­ing the in­for­ma­tion. But in­ter­nal data avail­able to agency staff and ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post show rid­er­ship over the past week was down about 50,000 trips per day on av­er­age through Wed­nes­day, with de­creases rang­ing from 6 per­cent to 11 per­cent com­pared to the same week last year. It was un­clear how much of the losses could be at­trib­uted di­rectly to the shut­down be­cause year-over-year rid­er­ship is not an ex­act com­par­i­son.

“We al­ready know anec­do­tally it’s been sig­nif­i­cant,” said Metro board mem­ber Chris­tian Dorsey, chairman of the panel’s fi­nance com­mit­tee. “I’m just hop­ing that once we to­tal it up we don’t have our hair on fire be­cause it’s so huge — and then the longer it

goes, the more it’s mag­ni­fied.”

For Metro, which ser­vices nu­mer­ous fed­eral hubs, in­clud­ing L’En­fant Plaza, Med­i­cal Cen­ter and Pen­tagon, the im­pact of an ex­tended shut­down could be acute. Dur­ing the 2013 gov­ern­ment shut­down, Metro rid­er­ship dropped more than 20 per­cent, and the agency was forced to run shorter trains to meet the re­duced de­mand. The two-week shut­down cost the agency more than $5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

The agency has es­ti­mated fed­eral work­ers make up 40 per­cent of its rush-hour rid­er­ship.

Mean­while, this shut­down on Satur­day be­came the long­est in U.S. his­tory, sur­pass­ing the 21day shut­down be­tween 1995 and 1996. How­ever, be­cause the be­gin­ning of the shut­down fell dur­ing what is typ­i­cally a lighter rid­er­ship pe­riod — dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­day — the im­me­di­ate im­pact was not ex­pected to break Metro’s $1.8 bil­lion op­er­at­ing bud­get.

But there were re­cent hints that the shut­down was be­gin­ning to make a dent.

“It’s how long does this go and what does that mean?” Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld said as the shut­down stretched into its third week. The ef­fects go be­yond rid­er­ship, he said.

Wiede­feld said the shut­down raises nu­mer­ous con­cerns for the tran­sit agency and the re­gion: the rev­enue chal­lenges, the dis­burse­ment of fed­eral grants to pay for cap­i­tal projects, and a loom­ing April dead­line for fed­eral cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Metro­rail Safety Com­mis­sion, the body set to as­sume safety over­sight from the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

While the FTA’s Metro safety in­spec­tors re­main on the job — they are deemed “es­sen­tial” — the pro­cess­ing of grant fund­ing the agency is owed has stopped.

Only 11 per­cent of FTA em­ploy­ees are work­ing dur­ing the shut­down, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment’s shut­down plan. There are seven em­ploy­ees re­spon­si­ble for Metro over­sight who will con­tinue to re­spond as needed. Sev­eral con­trac­tors as­signed to Metro over­sight also re­main on the job and are be­ing com­pen­sated from un­ex­pired ap­pro­pri­a­tions from pre­vi­ous years.

“We won’t have a cash flow is­sue but it does even­tu­ally — po­ten­tially — have an im­pact,” Wiede­feld said of the fed­eral grant money. “None of us know how long this goes. Who knows?”

Mean­while, if the safety com­mis­sion is not in place by the April dead­line, ac­cord­ing to the Metropolitan Wash­ing­ton Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments, “FTA will be pro­hib­ited by law from obli­gat­ing any fed­eral tran­sit pro­gram funds to any pub­lic trans­porta­tion agen­cies in the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia, Mary­land and Vir­ginia” un­til its cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The FTA con­ducts the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

The FTA says it would be “pro­hib­ited by law” from is­su­ing a to­tal of $638 mil­lion in fed­eral trans­porta­tion fund­ing to the re­gion un­til the com­mis­sion is cer­ti­fied.

“That one is just in the back of my mind,” Wiede­feld said. “As time goes by that could po­ten­tially be a big­ger is­sue. Right now it’s not, but again no one knows how long this goes.”

And if the rid­er­ship loss re­sults in an op­er­at­ing short­fall?

“We’d have a dis­cus­sion with the ju­ris­dic­tions ba­si­cally to make up those dol­lars,” Wiede­feld said.

Dorsey, who rep­re­sents North­ern Vir­ginia, said regional anx­i­ety over the is­sue mounted as the like­li­hood of a clo­sure in­creased. A shut­down-re­lated fund­ing short­fall would com­pli­cate things for the agency be­cause it is push­ing for ad­di­tional money to pay for ser­vice in­creases.

“And the longer [the shut­down] goes on, the worse that it gets,” Dorsey said. “We’re about to head into un­charted ter­ri­tory.”

Other board mem­bers were skep­ti­cal that the ef­fects would be so dra­matic.

“In my es­ti­ma­tion, I think there could be some mod­est rev­enue im­pacts from lost fares, but prob­a­bly not any­thing that is be­yond the abil­ity of man­age­ment to com­pen­sate for in the over­all op­er­at­ing bud­get,” said board mem­ber Steve McMillin, a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pointee who rep­re­sents the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

McMillin was en­cour­aged that, un­like past shut­downs, about half of fed­eral em­ploy­ees are work­ing — some with­out pay. Ad­di­tion­ally, more em­ploy­ees re­cently re­turned to work when the ad­min­is­tra­tion or­dered the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice to process tax re­turns and is­sue re­funds.

Board mem­ber Michael Gold­man said Metro was just be­gin­ning to feel the ef­fects of the shut­down, though he did not no­tice it on his packed Red Line train to Thurs­day’s board meet­ing. It was “chock-a-block full,” he said, adding it might have been a “fluke.”

“If there’s less rid­er­ship there could be a short­fall,” said Gold­man, who rep­re­sents Mary­land. “It’s the long-term im­pact if this con­tin­ues for 30 or 45 days,” he said not­ing his big­gest con­cern.

Metro is set to is­sue a de­tailed anal­y­sis on the shut­down’s im­pact this up­com­ing week.

“If this goes very, very long that’s a to­tally dif­fi­cult equa­tion, but we’re just not there yet,” Wiede­feld said.

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