Amid recent criticism for its labor policies and a meltdown on the Red Line on Thursday morning, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld announced plans to implement a new business model to increase WMATA’s budget by $500 million per year and cut worker retirement benefits April 19.
The proposal calls for WMATA’s Capital Investment, the organization’s funding from local governments, to be available for use on a multi-year basis until Metro’s budget is stabilized, calling the current annual plan stifling for the organization. Local governments that use WMATA rail and bus services would also provide $500 million in extra funding each year.
WMATA has already announced fare hikes and reduced services beginning in July as part of Metro’s efforts to avoid a $1.1 billion budget deficit by 2020. In addition to the fare hikes, WMATA’s 2018 fiscal year budget of $3.1 billion proposes eliminating 14 low-traffic Metrobus lines, reducing service hours, cutting nearly 1,000 jobs and requesting additional funding from the local governments of the District, Virginia and Maryland.
The plan also proposes a sales tax for local jurisdictions to pay for the expanded funding, though each jurisdiction is free to raise the necessary funds in any way they choose.
Wiedefeld said the proposal is necessary for WMATA’s future because current operating expenses are nearly double what the organization gains in revenue.
“WMATA has completed a detailed analysis of the financial challenges it faces and practical requirements necessary to keep Metro safe, reliable and affordable,” Wiedefeld wrote in the plan.
Metro has faced a series of malfunctions and safety hazards on its rail service. Most recently, riders on the Red Line faced delays for several hours Thursday and evacuated following reports of smoke between the Metro Center and Farragut North stations.
The smoke was detected at approximately 7:30 a.m., according to WMATA spokesman Richard Jordan. Following protocol, trains in the affected area between Dupont Circle and Gallery Place were suspended and the fire department was notified. Metro service on the Red Line was restored at approximately 11 a.m., according to Metro.
The proposal also outlines methods of limiting WMATA’s operations costs, which includes limiting resources to WMATA employees, such as “strengthening management of absenteeism, overtime, and workers’ compensation;” reducing “reliance on overtime and prevent fatigue by staffing up key operating positions” and providing all new WMATA employees with 401K retirement benefit plans instead of the current pension plans primarily funded by Metro.
401K plans, on average, are largely funded by employees, as employer contributions are not required.
Wiedefeld said though the new plan may provide fewer resources to employees, addressing WMATA’s financial realities is critical.
“I think that the union, and all of our employees, need to understand the conditions we’re under,” Wiedefeld said in a press conference on April 20. “They may not agree with it, but that isn’t because I’m trying to do anything against them personally.”
Over the next ten years, WMATA is looking to raise a total of $15.5 billion dollars to renovate and maintain the Metrorail and Metrobus system for riders across the District, Virginia and Maryland.
Wiedefeld addressed this budget issue at a press conference Thursday afternoon, saying that Metro is taking steps to conduct preventative maintenance and update the system beginning July 1, with funding from his business proposal.
“The issues that we had this morning are ones that we’ve been clear about that are not going to disappear overnight. They were not made overnight and we have to continue to work through those. And that’s why we’ve requested and received the ability to get more hours into the system starting July 1,” Wiedefeld said.
Labor union leaders oppose the budget plan. Shortly after the announcement, WMATA leaders received nearly 500 absence requests for Friday from workers in the local Amalgamated Transit Union 689, which represents WMATA transit employees.
WMATA rejected all of the requests.
Though ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter said the organization is not planning a “sick-out,” or an organized event in which workers abstain from coming in to work, she emphasized that individuals are free to protest in whatever way they see fit.
“There is a possibility that members have taken it upon themselves to start following the directives that WMATA has given,” Jeter told The Washington Post. “Local 689 supports the actions of the members 100 percent. We support what they’re doing.”
However, Jeter was critical of WMATA leadership for not granting the absence requests, as workers are typically granted these requests so long as they are submitted three days before an absence.
“Will WMATA accept the responsibility of refusing a person who is legitimately sick from getting a doctor’s care Friday?” Jeter wrote in an email to Wiedefeld on Thursday.
A WMATA memorandum on the high volume of absence requests said employees who do not report to work on Friday will receive negative marks on their individual disciplinary records.
The critiques come amidst an already tense relationship between WMATA employees and its leadership.
After Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) introduced the WMATA Improvement Act of 2017 Feb. 16, which aims to grant Metro management greater power in reassigning workers and relying on outside contractors to complete the work typically completed by WMATA employees, ATU International President Lawrence Hanley called the plan heartless, cruel and “among the most outrageous proposals ever put forth by a Democratic member of Congress in recent memory.
The House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law is currently reviewing this legislation.
“The bill holds hostage hundreds of millions of sorely-needed dollars from WMATA until our collective bargaining agreement is changed to allow the transit authority to ‘implement all necessary operational changes required’ and lower costs by outsourcing our work,” Hanley told WMATA management Monday.