Massive cuts to federal spending could be catastrophic for Metro. The transit agency stands to lose perhaps tens of millions of dollars with the federal government on the verge of a fiscal cliff.
Automatic spending cuts kick in January 2 if Congress fails to act. Now, Metro is bracing for the potential fallout. It's all part of sequestration, which means automatic spending cuts. It amounts to $1.2 trillion from the federal budget.
For the Metro system, it means potential financial disaster.
"It could be draconian," said Metro General Manager and Chief Executive Richard Sarles.
The Washington region's aging transit system is struggling to modernize after years of neglect. A big chunk of that comes from $150 million in federal funding each year.
"If that is significantly cut back, we will not achieve what we say we're going to do over the next few years," Sarles warned. "We will not dig out of the hole we've been in."
A White House report released days ago shows Metro would lose $12 million annually if mandatory spending cuts take effect in January, but that loss could multiply.
"The overall impact on the Washington region would be very negative, and specifically to WMATA," said Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD, 8th District). "Both the direct impacts and the indirect impacts would be very bad."
40 percent of the federal workforce uses Metro, providing about $2 million a day in revenue. Job cuts to federal agencies and government contractors means a loss of thousands of riders and the fares they pay.
"Fixing escalators, putting in elevators, putting in canopies and so forth, that will all come to a screaming halt if this were allowed to happen," said Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA, 11th District).
To put the potential $12 million cut in perspective, it's the same amount it cost to replace the Dupont Circle escalators. Broken escalators are one of the system's biggest complaints.
"Probably the politicians, they don't ride Metro. So they won't feel it. They should try it once in a while and they will see the huge impact it will have if they decide that," said Carmen Villasante, who has no car and depends on Metro.
The agency's federal funding is matched by Maryland, Virginia and the District. If the federal government doesn't pay its share, the two states and D.C. could short their combined contribution by $12 million too, doubling it to $24 million in cuts. That is enough to buy 35 new metro buses or a dozen new rail cars. Riders almost certainly would feel the pain.
"I'm not even sure I want to know what it would be like," said Nadine Canavan.
Her trip on Metro can take as much as two hours, she says.
"The improvements are already a hindrance. So I would not appreciate them cutting back any further than they already have," said Canavan.
The failure of Congress to reach a deal on deficit reduction brought this on.
"I think it's irresponsible and reckless," Connolly said. "I think we should deal with it, this subject right now."
Across the river, Connolly's counterpart in Maryland agreed.
"We have to avoid sequestration. That's the bottom line," Van Hollen said.
As Congress goes on recess Friday until after the November election, Metro can't ignore the real possibility of sequestration.
"If we don't make the investment in the reconstruction of the system, it will affect our ability to maintain the system, which will increase the cost of maintenance to the system, which will affect the reliability of the system," Sarles said.
If automatic cuts kick in, Metro says safety will come first, but everything else is on the table.