Rush hour on the L train. Crowding on some lines could get worse in the winter. (Photo via flickr user Tasayu Tasnaphun)
When the MTA announced what I termed its efficient slate of service cuts in January, the train line eliminations and bus route restructurings earned headlines while a technical provision about load guidelines went largely ignored. Everyone wanted to hear about the end of the V train, the death of the W and the official move to cut G service to Forest Hills. No one cared if a car would now be considered full when every seat is taken and 10-18 straphangers are standing.
Today, we care for the MTA has unveiled a small slate of service cuts that will take advantage of these new load guidelines and go into effect in December. The cuts will largely target some underutilized bus routes but will also involve the restructuring of rush hour service along the 7 line. When new train schedules are implemented in December, a handful of lines will see headways increased from one to 2.5 minutes. According to The Times, transit officials say these changes are “routine adjustments to account for trends in ridership, which has sagged in the weak economy.”
The MTA’s own internal documents tell a similar story. The MTA Board’s Transit Committee books — available here as a PDF — say that these service adjustments will save the MTA $4.1 million annually and will “more closely align subway service with customer demand and established guidelines for subway operations.” Conveniently, those established guidelines are the new load guidelines that go into effect next week and allow the MTA to cut train frequency while still operating trains within its own acceptable parameters.
As for the details, the cuts are sparse but have the potential to impact many early rush-hour commuters and off-peak riders. Transit will be scaling back service on 31 bus routes while increasing it on 14, but the biggest cuts are along the IRT Flushing Line. Express service will now begin at 6:20 a.m. instead of 5:30 a.m., and riders along the 7 will lose four early-morning express trains. To meet demand, Transit will add one local trip between 5:20 and 6:10 and two local trains between 9 and 10 a.m. These cuts will be into effect in December, and other lines affected include the 1, A, F, J, L and M trains. A chart showing the new train frequencies is below.
These new service cuts raise a few questions. First, why is the MTA continuing to cut service? The answer to his one is simple: The authority remains a few hundred million dollars in debt, and Friday’s decision to save the Student MetroCard program does little to alleviate the financial pressure. As The Times reports, the authority’s tax revenue is falling below projection, and the agency still hasn’t figured out how to close its $400 million budget gap. Thus, more service cuts.
The second question is one few people want to ask: So what happens next? At this point, the MTA has revised its load guidelines, has cut off-peak service and is starting to whittle away at the fringes of rush hour traffic. Will the agency begin to pare down its peak-hour offerings? Are we in line for a fare hike? Even the carrot of $90 million in stimulus funds wouldn’t be enough to close the gap, and the Senate has yet to move on a potential transit operating aid package.
The MTA’s first proposed budget is due at the end of July, and it must contain a net-zero on the balance sheet. The service cuts or the fare hikes could be extreme, and John H. Banks, a six-year veteran of the MTA Board, put it best. “This is just the beginning,” he said to The Times. “Unless there is a dramatic change in what is anticipated from Albany and the city — which I don’t expect — we’re in for a bumpy ride, no pun intended.”