Waiting for $ 12 billion in stimulus aid, the future of the New York subway hangs in the balance

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Commuters take the New York subway on November 5. The MTA has warned of major layoffs, delayed repairs and service cuts. AFP via Getty Images

As New Yorkers enter the New Year, they will be faced with another source of angst: whether or not the city’s subway system can continue to operate. The MTA, the nation’s largest transit system, has spent months waiting for news of federal stimulus funds, and without it, could be forced to make cuts that would render the transit ecosystem of the almost unrecognizable city.

“This is the worst financial crisis in MTA history by order of magnitude,” said MTA chairman Patrick J. Foye. “The MTA has faced periodic financial challenges over the years – 9/11, Sandy, the financial crisis. But nothing like that, ever.

During the worst days of the virus in New York in the spring, ridership fell 90%, and is currently still 70% below its usual fares, a devastating blow to a system that relies heavily on fares to cover the costs of operation. To keep the metro system functional, the MTA lobbied for $ 12 billion in funding in the second stimulus package, after receiving $ 4 billion in the first round of federal aid. “This is a national problem requiring a national solution,” Foye said.

But with stimulus talks continually stalled in Washington, transit officials have been forced to begin planning for a future without federal funds. The MTA has released plans for what 2021 would look like in the absence of stimulus money, warning of major layoffs, delayed repairs and a 40% cut in service on subways and buses, as well as 50% reduction in services for commuter trains.

According to an analysis released by the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation in October.

“If these cuts materialize, it will take us decades back,” said Danny Pearlstein, director of policy and communications for the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance. “It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which large parts of the system are either completely atrophied or completely shut down. It would be a particularly devastating event in terms of the discovery that our water is no longer drinkable.

Since spring, the metro, renowned for its 24-hour service, has been closed for cleaning between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., with no fixed return date for normal service hours. A further reduction in service could create an immediate crisis and hours of daily delays for the city’s commuters, many of whom are essential, and healthcare workers who represent the system’s “main customers” according to Foye.

Another potential blow to cyclists: MTA officials are considering dropping the cost of a subway ride from $ 2.75 to $ 3.75, creating significant financial hardship for New Yorkers and dissuades them from returning to public transit.

“As with so many others this year, its impact would be inequitable,” Pearlstein said. “Black New Yorkers already have much longer journeys than white New Yorkers. Healthcare workers make the longest journeys, often to remote locations that are poorly served by public transport. “

With about an additional 15 minutes to bus wait times and eight minutes for outage trains, Pearlstein said, “If you have a two-bus ride, that’s an extra hour per day. I was talking with a family the other day. Both parents are nurses and would each have 3.5 additional hours of commuting per week. It is truly a thank you and a cold comfort to the people who have served us throughout the pandemic.

Slow service also has the potential to create additional blockage in automobile traffic, a side effect that could have implications far beyond the daily hassle.

“The MTA is the basis of everything in New York City, of our financial economy, but also of whether or not you can drive the streets of our city,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. , a nonprofit organization and public transportation policy. If there is an outbreak of COVID and ambulances cannot weather the traffic jams, people will die. These are very real possibilities. “

A struggling public transportation system in New York City could also cause economic damage far beyond the tri-state area.

“New York is responsible for 10% of the entire national gross domestic product,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation and co-author of the Center report. “The city plays a disproportionate role in the national economy and the global economy, and the United States has a stake in this region being vital, just as we need to make sure the airlines are vital.”

Joe Biden‘s victory in the presidential election gave transit officials reason to be optimistic.

“We are encouraged that the President-elect throughout his legislative career in the Senate has been a steadfast and staunch supporter of transit and transit,” said Foye. “We predict the worst and hope for the best. No one at the MTA wants to take action to reduce service. “

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However, with hopes of a second revival before the end of the year diminishing, planning for the worst is an urgent priority.

“The president-elect does not take office until January 20 and the MTA is due to vote on its budget in December,” said Andrew Albert, MTA board member and president of the New York City Transit Riders Council. “It would be horrible if you had to make these massive service cuts and then cancel them.”

One of the greatest ironies of the current crisis is that after years of high-profile unrest, including the now famous ‘Hell Summer’ of 2017, the MTA had entered 2020 into a position of stability and relative growth.

“Before the pandemic, ‘traffic was booming, the capital plan was moving forward, we were receiving new signals and accessible stations,” said Albert. “All of this is now in abeyance. And the longer you wait, nothing is cheaper. “

“It was the first year I could think of a capital plan that was perfectly sized in terms of ambition, scope, what it was going to do to try to fix the system,” Sifuentes added. “At the same time, we came across COVID, which completely blew this capital plan into hell.”

These unanticipated plans could put the city’s transit system in a strong enough position to make improvements and find a more sustainable financial footing if the federal government obtains financial support.

“Overall, the MTA was in a good position to address this issue, and we hope we can get back to it without getting bogged down in long-term debt,” said Stephen Levin, City Council Member, who sits on the Council Committee. . on transport. “This is why the federal bailout is so essential. This is exactly the kind of situation for which you need a deficit at the federal level. “

And beyond the stimulus, experts are considering longer-term solutions at the federal and local levels, eyeing potential new sources of revenue, including congestion pricing, a gas tax similar to that of the New. Jersey and even legalized marijuana sales, which would make the system less dependent on ridership and tariffs, which are expected to remain depressed for the foreseeable future.

“Now that we are at a point where New Yorkers can cross the George Washington Bridge to buy [marijuana] in another state, there is no better time to legalize it and put the income in transit, ”Sifuentes said. (New Jersey voters recently passed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use from January 2021, but full details of the legislation are still being negotiated.)

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A more stable future for the metro also includes higher annual amounts of federal funding, beyond a one-time emergency stimulus. “At best, federal formulas are adjusted so that public transit that carries 40% of ridership across the country receives more than the 16% of federal public transit funding it currently receives,” Albert said. “This is such an unfair formula, when you consider that public transport systems are economic engines.”

But right now, transit officials can’t do much beyond preparing for the impact.

“The MTA has gone from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis throughout its history,” Pearlstein said. “New sources of income have always been found, and I think something will happen. I think the biggest challenge will be on the road, putting us on a more stable footing than before.

Pearlstein added: “We have to save the subway to fix it.”