Since Jan. 10, D.C. residents have experienced delays, cancellations, crowding, and other interruptions in bus and public transportation service, spurred by the rapid spread of Omicron in the District. On Jan. 10 and 11, the M4 bus was canceled altogether and the D-series buses (the D2 and D6 both run near Georgetown’s campus) suffered severe delays. In addition, many buses have temporarily switched to a Saturday schedule, offering bus services at just 75 percent of normal capacity.
“We had students and workers, elderly folks, everyone calling us saying, ‘my child is outside in the freezing weather waiting for their bus that either came 30 to 45 minutes late or didn’t come at all,’” Amanda Farnan, D.C. councilmember Christina Henderson’s communications director, said. “That should never be a situation that we are putting residents in.”
While subscribers to Metro’s listserv were notified of the changes two days in advance, residents not subscribed were left unaware. Neither WMATA’s app, nor other navigation apps, reflected the delays and cancellations.
In response, a letter drafted by Henderson, signed by all other members of the Council on Transportation and the Environment and sent to WMATA on Jan. 12, requested “the restoration of regular weekday bus service, reliable arrival/departure times, and a testing protocol for drivers.”
The letter also emphasized the need to make these changes safely. “We don’t want to be putting bus drivers in harm,” Farnan said.
These Metrobus interruptions have taken place during Metrorail service reductions. WMATA pulled their 7000-series Metrorail cars in October after a Blue Line car derailed near Arlington Cemetary. The 7000-series represents 60 percent of the Metrorail fleet, and the cars are not expected to return until mid-April at the earliest. As a result, D.C. residents who previously relied on Metrorail for transportation now increasingly depend on unreliable bus services.
Those who frequent the Georgetown neighborhood rely on efficient bus systems. The neighborhood notably lacks a Metrorail stop, meaning that commuting students, faculty, and staff count on these buses running on time.
In a Jan. 27 news release, Metro’s CEO announced that 10 percent of WMATA employees were forced to quarantine during the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Despite the shortening of the CDC-recommended quarantine period, WMATA continues to require 10 days of isolation following a positive test.
“A lot of drivers are finishing their quarantines in good health—which is great—and they’re able to return to work. So it’s good to see the service incrementally increasing, but we do still want to see that increased communication and that return to full service,” Farnan said.
WMATA employees failing to comply with vaccination requirements or, alternatively, weekly testing, are now subject to unpaid suspension. This more strictly enforced mandate significantly contributed to interruptions in recent weeks. As of Jan. 31, WMATA’s definition of fully vaccinated changed to require booster shots for those eligible.
“WMATA has a vaccination requirement, but a test-out option. So something that we suggested is providing the tests on-site so drivers can come test and then go to work, instead of having to find a test on their own time,” Farnan said, referencing Henderson’s letter. As of Feb. 1, WMATA has not made any announcement regarding this recommendation.
Despite the spike in employees testing positive and early low vaccination among drivers, WMATA has made progress in increasing vaccination rates.
“Big credit to WMATA for actually increasing their numbers. I do believe they were around [the] 40 percent range last year in the fall,” said Farnan. “And now I do believe they are approaching a 70 or 80 percent vaccination rate.”
Despite these challenges, the normal weekday schedule will return on Feb. 7, according to the Jan. 27 news release.