When New York issued a stay-at-home order in March, public transit ridership and revenue took a nosedive. And with the country in the grips of a second coronavirus wave, it’s not likely to rebound anytime soon.
The ongoing pandemic has left New York’s transit system, which is essential for the city to function, and public transit in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., in major financial trouble.
Now with the new $900 billion coronavirus relief package expected to pass Congress, public transit agencies in cities across the country are finally getting much needed federal help. Mass transit agencies will get $14 billion in federal relief funding.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA], which runs New York City subways, buses, and the Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, will receive $4 billion from Congress.
The city’s subways, buses and commuter rails were on the brink of financial disaster without the new aid, MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye says. The agency would have been forced to cut subway and bus service by 40%, reduce commuter rail service by 50% and lay off about 9,000 employees.
“The $4 billion included for the MTA in the COVID relief bill will cover our deficit for 2021,” Foye says. “That'll give us a year's running room. We will not have to cut service, as we have described, or lay off our colleagues in 2021.”
But the service is still facing a huge financial hole and is now asking the federal government to provide $8 billion in funding over the next four years, Foye says.
When New York emerged as the epicenter of the coronavirus in March, public transit ridership and revenue declined to lows not seen since the Great Depression, he says. Nearly 5.5 million people rode the subway daily prior to the pandemic, and earlier this year in January, the MTA was predicting an $80 million surplus that evaporated.
“At the depths of the pandemic, subway ridership was down 95%, and even right now, on an average weekday, it's down [70% to 75%] compared to an average pre-pandemic weekday,” Foye says. “We get half our revenues from our customers in fares and tolls, and the precipitous decline in ridership across the board has had drastic adverse financial consequences.”
Foye says the only way the MTA will be able to fill its massive budget hole is to raise fares, cut operating costs and make the case to Congress that the transit agency deserves more federal funding.
“We believe that the MTA's recovery is pivotal to the New York regional economy's recovery,” he says. “Our region accounts for about 10% of national GDP, so it's in the nation's interest to do that.”
On Sunday, protesters held a rally against the MTA’s planned fare hikes. Foye says the agency is “acutely aware” of the financial devastation many New Yorkers have faced this year and urged those who qualify to sign up for the Fair Fares discount program.
In the near term, raising fares is the only way the MTA will be able to cover the added costs of sanitation and providing masks to employees and customers, Foye says. The agency has also created a family benefit for the survivors of transit workers who died from COVID-19.
The promise of new vaccines and continuing trends of public transit ridership driven by urbanization and environmentalism give Foye hope that riders will come back to public transportation eventually. Riders always returned in greater numbers after past public health emergencies, such as the 1918 flu pandemic and the polio epidemic in the 1950s, he says.
“We expect that to continue. It is not going to come back immediately,” he says. “Ridership will increase, but it's going to take some time to get back to those record levels.”
This segment aired on December 21, 2020.