Home View from Underground NYC’s transit lifeline takes some of the hardest hits during the pandemic

NYC’s transit lifeline takes some of the hardest hits during the pandemic

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA’s latest digital ad campaigns honors workers who have been on the front lines of COVID-19 pandemic.

Monday marked the one-month anniversary since my last subway, and it’s been a strange, surreal 33 days since I last took the 4 train from Manhattan to Brooklyn after one final day in the office before I fully embraced my firm’s “work from home” policy. Nothing in particular jumps out about that subway ride. The 4 leaving Grand Central was slightly emptier than normal, and straphangers seemed a bit jumpier than usual. But it was nothing compared with the last bus ride I took two days later, and little did we know what the next month would bring.

The bus ride, for what it’s worth, was much worse. Since my wife and I had to move at the start of a pandemic, I had to take a last-minute trip to Home Depot on Sunday night, and I couldn’t fit the large roll of bubble wrap in a Citi Bike basket for the trip back home. So my last transit trip of 2020 was a B44-SBS on Sunday, March 15. A guy with visibly red eyes and sniffles boarded at Fulton St., and everyone on the bus skirted out of his way while we all collectively visibly flinched.

At around 9:05 p.m., I got off that bus at Nostrand Ave and St. Johns and haven’t taken a transit ride since then. I’m not an essential worker, and now isn’t the time for subway joy rides. I’ve spotted the Franklin Ave. Shuttle a few times, running without many riders. I’ve heard the IRT locals travel between Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway during my late-night runs through Prospect Park. I’ve seen buses, sometimes empty and sometimes not, continuing to criss-cross the streets of Brooklyn, those blue and yellow lumbering vehicles the unsung workhorses of our transit infrastructure.

It’s profoundly weird, this feeling of disconnect from transit, a part of everyday life in New York City, as it feels to be disconnected from every other part of New York City life. I hear more ambulances than airplanes, even though my new place lines up with one of the approaches to Laguardia, more 7 p.m. applause than traffic. Only when I’m out of the city do I go weeks between subway rides, and I can confidently say I’ve never gone this long in my life without a transit ride. Even when I had a broken bone in my foot a few years ago, I had to hobble to the subway to get to a few doctors appointments. These days, most New Yorkers hardly go anywhere, and the subway feels more like a concept than the lifeblood of the city it was just a few weeks ago.

But the trains must go. In a city of 8 million, hundreds of thousands of people still need the trains to get to their essential jobs everyday, and even during a pandemic, around 500,000 people per day are relying on the MTA to get them to their patients, to their shifts at the post office, to their jobs maintaining the city’s food supplies. These are the folks who are keeping the city going even as everything else has involuntarily ground to a halt, and the transit system is getting them there. It could not be more vital.

It hasn’t been an easy few weeks for our transit system since my last post, and the podcast I recorded with Nicole Gelinas feels like a lifetime ago. At the time, it was clear that the pandemic had shot a multi-billion-dollar hole in the MTA’s budget, and the agency was reeling financially from the hit.

But now the agency is more than reeling in very personal ways. As of Tuesday afternoon, 59 transit employees have died due to COVID-19. These are the front-line workers who move the city, and they have been constantly under attack by the coronavirus since Day One. Toward the end of March, the MTA instituted an “essential service” plan that basically matched up subway service with available crews. With so many MTA workers quarantined after exposure to the virus, the MTA simply couldn’t run full service. With with ridership down approximately 93-95 percent, per MTA Chair Pat Foye’s confirmation on Tuesday, the agency can’t save money cutting service immediately amidst a crisis, and they need to maintain service to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Still, gone for now is the B train and the C, the W and Z and the 42nd St. Shuttle. Even still, these workers have fallen ill.

The MTA hasn’t escaped criticism for these deaths. At the start of the pandemic, the MTA, taking its guidance from the CDC and federal officials, barred the use of face masks, and only recently did the agency finally lift this restriction. MTA officials have defended the early guidance to me and have pointed to the CDC’s words. It’s hard to argue with that; after all, the MTA isn’t known for being ahead of any curve, and the CDC is supposed to be the be-all and end-all of pandemic response in America. But a few weeks later, the words in a recent post on The LIRR Today ring true:

Another point of contention has been MTA’s sluggishness towards the use of face masks (by supplying masks to all employees and strongly recommending/requiring their use by riders on the system) as more became known about the communicability of this virus. After originally not providing or even prohibiting the use of mask by frontline workers, the MTA relented on March 27—weeks into the pandemic—announcing that they would begin distributing tens of thousands of masks to frontline workers. MTA officials have tried to lean significantly on the notion in recent days that CDC guidance did not shift towards recommending asymptomatic people wear masks until very recently, but that doesn’t really pass muster… CDC guidance is just that, guidance—and guidance from the federal government has to be reasonably applicable to the entire country, and doesn’t account that the effects and rate of spread in places like New York might be different than in places like Topeka. Granted, the MTA should [not] be left to determine public health policy all on its own, and state and local health departments should have been more up to speed on this—but the MTA probably should have realized that having a hundred or more people crammed into small metal boxes in an already hostile environment, and then having employees sit in those boxes and breathe the same air for hours a day presented a risk level that is a fair bit beyond the norm and taken stronger precautions. And it was also the MTA who conflated CDC guidance against asymptomatic people wearing masks and turned that into a prohibition on mask use for many frontline employees. The MTA is ultimately responsible to provide a safe workplace, by protecting the health and safety of its employees, in any circumstance.

The MTA this week agreed to a $500,000 family benefit for any transit worker who died due to COVID-19. It’s the right thing to do, and my sympathies go out to every family grieving a loved one these days.

A March 27th fire that started in car 6347 claimed the life of TO Garrett Goble. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

These coronavirus deaths weren’t the only underground tragedies in recent weeks as a fire — suspected as arson — tore through a 2 train near 110th Street a few weeks ago. Seventeen riders were injured and a train operator who helped rescue his passengers succumbed to his injuries. The fire was one of the more horrific intentional subway crimes in recent years, and it added to the sense of chaos and helplessness and detachment that has enveloped New York City. (Garrett Goble was later commemorated in graffiti.)

The fires and the deaths and the detachment from the regular pace of city life seem par for the course these days, and we’re months away from any return to normalcy. The MTA, as Gelinas wrote this week, is going to need a massive infusion of cash to power the city as our rebound occurs, and I’ll have more thoughts on the fiscal edge the MTA is teetering upon shortly. It’s not easy to make sense of much that happens these days, and who knows when any of us who aren’t essential workers will next ride the subway again?

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A Curious Idea April 15, 2020 - 7:51 am

Ben, what do you think of the idea of doing cut and cover for the 2nd Ave Subway now that all the businesses are shut down and disruption would be minimized? Obviously nobody would want to allocate the funds at this time, but in theory would this save money in the long-term?

Benjamin Kabak April 15, 2020 - 12:36 pm

They don’t have the ability to start construction next week (relatively speaking) so it’s moot. They should still look at cut-and-cover where possible for Phase 2 but the need to dig under the Lex line at 125th St. is a challenge.

Adirondacker12800 April 15, 2020 - 2:50 pm

How much would it slow things down to have all the construction workers in personal protective equipment that protects them from COVID-19 risks? Or is it that those kinds of peons and their management minions don’t get viruses?

Larry Penner April 15, 2020 - 4:13 pm

Without securing all necessary funding, it would be irresponsible for the MTA to consider initiation of cut and cover or any other construction for Second Avenue Subway Phase Two. Consider there has been little progress that I am aware of in convincing the Federal Transit Administration to provide up to $3 billion in New Starts funding for the Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 under a Full Funding Grant Agreement in 2020. According to the FTA February 2020 New Starts report for federal fiscal year 2021 (October 1, 2020 – September 30, 2021), the MTA anticipates approval to enter final design and engineering. With less than nine months to go, this approval has yet to be secured. This would be followed before the end of 2020 with a Full Funding Grant Agreement from FTA. This would provide up to $3 billion in federal dollars toward the $6.9 billion total cost for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. The MTA has budgeted $4 billion of local funding within the previous $32 billion 2015 – 2019 & current Capital Plans to be used toward the $6.9 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase Two. The odds of MTA winning a multi billion dollar FFGA from FTA in 2020 are slim to none.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ). .

SEAN April 20, 2020 - 10:12 am

The Worst-Case Scenario’: New York’s Subway Faces Its Biggest Crisis

The nation’s largest urban transit system is seeking billions more in federal aid but may have to consider drastic measures, incluApril 20, 2020Updated 5:58 a.m. ET

The New York City subway system rebounded from the 1970s, when the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, crumbling cars routinely broke down and rampant crime scared riders away.

It survived the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which led to years of costly rebuilding and service disruptions. And it turned a corner after a spate of meltdowns and accidents in 2017 — including a derailment injuring dozens of riders — that prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to declare a state of emergency.

But now, the subway faces its worst financial crisis yet — one that threatens to hobble the system and have a lasting impact on the city and region.

As the coronavirus pandemic has shut down New York, over 90 percent of the city’s subway ridership has disappeared — along with critical fare revenue — leaving behind escalating expenses and an uncertain timeline of when and how the city’s transit lifeline will recover.
It is unclear what the actual fallout could be. But past crises suggest a potentially grim reckoning for riders: subway and bus lines eliminated, unpredictable wait times for trains as service is slashed, more breakdowns with less money spent on upkeep and steeper fare hikes.

“We don’t want to turn the clock back to the bad old days of the M.T.A., when state of good repair and system expansion was gutted to balance operating budgets,’’ said Patrick J. Foye, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “We’ve come too far.”

The agency, which operates the city’s subways, buses and two commuter rails, faces a shortfall of up to $8.5 billion even after temporarily scaling back service and receiving a $3.8 billion federal bailout, according to transit leaders and fiscal experts.

Financial projections for the next two years also look bleak, making it likely that money meant to be spent on improving the system will have to be used just to keep the subway and buses running.

“It’s highly likely that the worst-case scenario is the likely scenario,” said Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group.

Across the country, transit agencies are grappling with plummeting ridership, shrinking revenue and mounting pandemic-related expenses that could plunge public transit systems into financial calamity.

In New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, the transit authority has struggled to maintain an already-reduced service schedule as workers fall sick: as of Thursday, 2,400 workers had tested positive for the virus and 4,000 were quarantined. At least 68 workers have died.

M.T.A. officials have made an emergency request for another $3.9 billion in federal money. “We need substantially more help and we need it now,” Mr. Foye said.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of New York lawmakers sent a letter supporting the M.T.A.’s request to congressional leadership.

“The M.T.A. is in crisis. This additional funding of $4 billion is absolutely vital,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat. “Unfortunately with Trump you never know, but we in the delegation will fight tooth and nail to make sure that funding is there.”

Transit officials did not have an answer for what the agency would do if it failed to secure additional federal aid, characterizing it as a critical stopgap measure to keep the system moving.

But the unique nature of this crisis complicates options the transit agency has taken in the past.

With less than a million riders using public transit, raising the fare now would be futile. Cutting service beyond the reduced schedules is complicated by the critical role public transit plays in moving doctors, nurses and other essential workers. And indefinitely delaying long-overdue upgrades and maintenance could set back service for years to come.

“The traditional levers we would use in worst-case scenarios are not useful,” said Robert E. Foran, chief financial officer at the M.T.A. “None of these are now tenable choices.”

An analysis of M.T.A. finances by McKinsey & Company projects fare and toll revenue losses up to $5.9 billion and dedicated tax revenue losses as high as $1.8 billion. By the end of the year, the authority will face revenue losses as high as $8.5 billion, officials said.

These losses will cripple the M.T.A.’s operating budget: Nearly all of its operating revenue comes from fares and tolls, and taxes and subsidies — including payroll, real estate transfer and business taxes — that are expected to drop sharply in the coming months.

The agency might have to consider taking drastic measures, transit experts said, including raising tolls and fares beyond two planned fare and toll increases of 4 percent each in 2021 and 2023.

In 2010, the M.T.A. eliminated two subway lines and dozens of bus routes to help close a major budget gap.

Even before the pandemic, some fiscal experts had questioned the M.T.A.’s budget, which relies on what some saw as rosy revenue projections.

“When people asked me two months ago, I said the M.T.A.’s fiscal situation was precarious — and that was during the good times,” said Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group.

The financial crisis hits at a critical time for the M.T.A., which has made slow but steady improvements to subway and bus service.

The agency has unveiled a sweeping $54 billion program to transform an antiquated century-old system into a modern network that will be pivotal to New York’s recovery.

The plan includes replacing signals that date back as far as the 1930s with new signals that will allow trains to run faster and increase capacity. It also calls for adding 70 elevators to improve access for the disabled and extending the Second Avenue subway north into East Harlem.

“All the capital projects we have in mind need to be done,’’ said Robert W. Linn, a member of the M.T.A. board.

Underscoring the transit agency’s precarious situation, New York lawmakers, acting they said at the insistence of Mr. Cuomo, opened the door for the M.T.A. to help cover its operating costs by tapping revenue that was supposed to be used to make improvements.

That revenue comes from a portion of the sales tax, a new tax on high-end real estates sales and tolls from a hard-fought congestion pricing plan that is expected to start next year.

“In normal circumstances, it would have been a move that many organizations opposed,” said Kate Slevin, a senior vice president for the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy group. “But given the circumstances, the M.T.A. has few good alternatives here so we found it acceptable.”

Still, Mr. Rein, of the Citizens Budget Commission, said the M.T.A. must strike a careful balance between paying to run the subway and investing in upgrades that will ensure a well-functioning system as the city struggles to return to a semblance of normal life.

Many transit experts said the last time New York’s subways were anywhere near such a dire financial strait was in the late 1970s, after decades of cost-cutting and deferred maintenance had turned the system into a worldwide symbol of urban decay.

Officials resorted to using federal funding earmarked for capital projects to cover shortfalls in the agency’s operating budget to keep the system afloat as ridership and farebox revenue plummeted.

But the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will plunge the M.T.A. into uncharted territory, as it confronts both economic and public health challenges, experts say.

“What it’s facing today is far more serious,” said Richard Ravitch, who was chairman of the M.T.A. during the 1970s crisis. “If you look at the number of people who are unemployed, if you look at the projections for the city’s deficit, if you look at the state’s deficit, you have to ask yourself: Where is the revenue going to come from to support the M.T.A.?”

Beside decimating revenue, the public health crisis has also triggered hundreds of millions in new expenses to protect transit workers and disinfect equipment.

And even when stay-at-home restrictions are eased, some riders may fear returning to crowded subway platforms and cars because of lasting concerns about being exposed to viruses.

“How long does this level of ridership stay where it is?” Mr. Rein said. “Once we start going back to work, what level of ridership comes back? The behavioral impacts of this is still unknown.”

Still, experts say an efficient and effective public transit system will be critical to the city and the country — the New York region contributes 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

“The M.T.A. is the economic engine of the entire region; the economy is built around the spine of the subway, buses and commuter rails,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the M.T.A., a watchdog group.

“You can’t reopen the economy without the transit system in New York.”

Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting

Goljerp April 20, 2020 - 6:06 pm

Sean, you probably shouldn’t just paste the text of a New York Times article as a reply. A link would suffice, or a summary… (Ben, if you end up deleting Sean’s comment, feel free to remove this as well.)

John April 24, 2020 - 9:11 am

Maybe it’s time to look at bringing back the ultraviolet ‘Percepticon’ lighting that the Board of Transportation ordered from Budd Corp. for the R-11 subway cars in 1949 that were supposed to be the prototype railcars for the Second Avenue Subway. The polio outbreaks of the late 1940s apparently was the impetus for the UV lighting to be included in the new cars — they were later taken out, apparently over fears the lights might not simply be sterilizing the grab bars, doors and seats on the R-11s, but also the passengers. But you would think 71 years of advancement in ultraviolet lighting technology might produce something that could be more targeted and effective at their job, and added onto the lighting systems before the R-211 and the R-262 subway cars go into production.

Larry Penner April 24, 2020 - 10:09 am

John: Great idea. Virtually all NYC subway car procurements are funded under grants from the Federal Transit Administration. Your suggestion could accomplished by a change order to any contracts already awarded and issuing an addendum to any advertised procurement specifications bids currently under way. I also wonder if your idea could also be incorporated into Long Island and Metro North Rail Road car procurements. Most LIRR & Metro North car procurements are locally funded. You have provided an excellent example of why it is important to preserve past transportation history for today’s generation.
(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit bus and subway, Staten Island Rail Road, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ)..

John April 24, 2020 - 1:06 pm

I forget where I saw it, but someone else asked why New York didn’t look at installing UV lighting as a way to help kill viruses on equipment services, and that reminded me that the city had thought of that idea seven decades ago with the R-11s, but the technology of the late 1940s just wasn’t ready to handle what was being asked (and someone at the Transit Museum or elsewhere in NYCTA might have more information on how the Percepticon system was set up by Budd to work in those cars).

For the MTA in 2020, you’d think it would at least be worth a look, since ultraviolet lighting in the railcars — if it worked — would have to be less costly than having to disinfect every car in the system every 72 hours (and the system would be in place in the cars full-time, where the cleaning efforts lose whatever effectiveness they might have by the 70th or so hour in continuous service).

Denny March 22, 2023 - 2:11 am

According to COVID-19, 59 transit workers have perished, the agency is unable to instantly halt service in the midst of a crisis, and they must continue operating in order to follow social distancing regulations.

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