“An End to the New York Way of Life”
November 24, 2020
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing a $16.4 billion deficit through 2024 as a result of a sharp and sustained decline in ridership stemming from the pandemic. In the absence of federal aid, the agency is considering slashing service on subways by 40% and on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North lines by 50%.
By Sean Jeans-Gail
Amtrak is far from the only U.S. railroad in crisis. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing a $16.4 billion deficit through 2024 as a result of a sharp and sustained decline in ridership stemming from the pandemic. In the absence of federal aid, the agency is considering slashing service on subways by 40% and on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North lines by 50%. In addition to severe cuts to rail service, MTA is proposing cuts to 25% of its bus routes.
These cuts would be another blow to the cultural life of a city that depends on its subway system for day-to-day existence. Residents of “the city that never sleeps” are already struggling with the suspension of 24-hour subway service earlier this year, the first time the subway hasn’t run around the clock in 116 years.
“This would absolutely be an end to the New York way of life,” Andrew Albert, the non-voting rider advocate on the MTA Board of directors, told the New York Daily News.
And it’s not just the cultural life of the city, but its economic lifeblood as well. All told, the transit reductions would result in the direct elimination of more than 9,300 MTA jobs by 2021. Larger than the direct cuts are the indirect economic activity that goes away when service is slashed. These indirect benefits are similar to those found by the economic modeling developed by Rail Passengers Association in response to Amtrak’s 3x schedule. The NYU Rudin Center for Transportation project that MTA’s cuts will result in 450,000 lost jobs and a $65 billion blow to New York metro area’s GDP.
“We’re talking about debilitating the major economic centers of activity in the U.S. if we let this happen,” Ben Fried, communications director at the New York-based think tank Transit Center, told Bloomberg News. “It’d be a blow to the whole national economy.”
A National Crisis
The crisis in New York is similar to stories unfolding in hundreds of other communities across America. Nationally, transit ridership is about 76% below pre-pandemic levels, and it’s having an effect. Boston’s MBTA, San Francisco’s Muni, Los Angeles’ Metro, Chicago’s CTA, D.C.’s WMATA, Denver’s RTD, and Atlanta’s MARTA are all proposing radical cuts to service in response to growing budget gaps, along with dozens of other mid-sized cities. That doesn’t touch on the hundreds of small and rural transit systems which will see cuts to bus routes—stories unlikely to be illuminated by the media spotlight cast on the globally renowned New York subway system.
Nor are we likely to see many of the stories of the passengers hit hardest: essential workers who have had to physically show up to work every day throughout the pandemic, whether as nurses at hospitals or cashiers at grocery stores.
“We’re talking about riders in low-income communities who are part of our essential workers and who have been hit the hardest during the pandemic,” said Scarlett De Leon, a campaign and organizing manager at Los Angeles’ Alliance for Community Transit.
Rescue Plan Stalls
The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a rescue bill that includes $32 billion for the transit industry—with another $2.4 billion for Amtrak. However, the Senate has so far refused to take up a transportation relief bill and has already adjourned for its Thanksgiving break. With only a few weeks left in the 2020 legislative calendar and a government shutdown to avoid, it’s likely another COVID-19 relief bill will have to wait until 2021 and a Biden Administration. That leaves transit officials across the U.S. planning for 2021 in a cloud of uncertainty.
Many transportation analysts are finding a dark hope in the fact that these systems are so deeply interwoven throughout the U.S. economy and way of life. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine America without them. So, while Congressional dysfunction may delay the relief package, the facts on the ground could eventually force legislative action.
“We know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Bruce Schaller, a New York City transit official. “It’s hard to say how far it is, and what the shape is. But we will deal with it when we get there.”
"I’m so proud that we came together in bipartisan fashion in the Senate to keep the Southwest Chief chugging along, and I’m grateful for this recognition from the Rail Passengers Association. This victory is a testament to what we can accomplish when we reach across the aisle and work together to advance our common interests."
Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)
April 2, 2019, on receiving the Association's Golden Spike Award for his work to protect the Southwest Chief