Once the epicenter of the world’s worst public health crisis in a hundred years, New York City has emerged as a test case for how discipline and planning can contain the novel coronavirus. As the only region in the U.S. that has so far successfully managed both COVID-19 and a phased reopening, the New York metropolitan area is also likely to be the epicenter of our national economic recovery. Everyone in the U.S., from unemployed service sector workers to the president, has an interest in a rapid return to normal.
Unfortunately, the White House and the Senate have thus far squandered our chances by failing to pass recovery legislation that funds the mass transit systems that ten million daily riders — and billions of dollars in wages, goods and services they produce — rely on to get to jobs in our nation’s biggest financial hub. The current breakdown in talks on emergency relief funding is a stark repudiation of the sacrifices essential workers, who often rely on buses and subways, made during the pandemic’s peak and a rejection of the needs of millions of workers who relied on transit before the shutdown and will need it again when the crisis ebbs.
At the recent New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board meeting, Chairman Pat Foye laid out the stakes — the crisis we face today due to the pandemic is greater than even the Great Depression and the infamous near collapse of the system in the “bad old days” of the 1970s. Without federal emergency funds, the MTA will be forced to cut service virtually in half, hamstringing our recovery before it can even begin.
Just how dire is the crisis on our region’s rails and roads? At the pandemic’s peak, ridership had declined by 93 percent across the New York City region, and the resulting damage to transit agencies’ budgets, which rely heavily on fareboxes and tolls, has been existential in its scale. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates NYC’s subways, buses and commuter rail, needs $12 billion to keep regular service running in 2020 and 2021. The Port Authority, which runs commuter rail and buses serving over 284,000 daily customers, needs $3 billion. New Jersey Transit needs another $1.2 billion to provide service to its 910,000 daily bus and rail riders. In fact, the American Public Transportation Association is now calling for an additional $32 billion in federal funding just to keep public transit viable nationwide.
If the federal government fails to provide relief funds, these agencies will cease to exist as we know them — and so too will New York City. According to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, in 2018 nearly 8 million people entered or left Manhattan below 60th Street on an average day, 5.8 million of them via transit. With travel speeds in the midtown core already a meager 4.9mph, imagine if just 10 percent of those transit trips turn into automobile trips: traffic would bring the region to an utter standstill. Pre-pandemic gridlock already cost the New York economy $13 billion a year, according to a study by the Partnership for New York City. The economic damage a failed transit network would wreak is unfathomable.
Transit will always have a fundamental role to play in our cities’ fiscal health. While some might worry about whether our buses and trains could ever be made safe again, Europe and Asia are already showing that it is entirely possible: as our report “Back on Board” highlights, studies of transit systems in Paris, Vienna, Tokyo and other major cities have demonstrated that even with high levels of ridership, no outbreaks of COVID-19 have been traced back to transit. With high mask wearing compliance and clean, high-frequency service, buses, subways and commuter rail can be safe modes of transportation for returning workforces.
This spring, New Yorkers did the hard work, at great cost, of getting the virus under control. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part. New York’s economic output is almost as big as Canada’s, If New York were its own country, it would be the world’s eleventh largest economy. If the Senate and the White House fail to act responsibly and save transit, the long-term ramifications for our country’s business sector will be catastrophic.
For a White House that has been singularly focused on reopening our economic engines, neglecting the transit that brings workers, tourists, shoppers and diners to our cities will doom a successful recovery.
Nick Sifuentes is the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit organization fighting for sustainable transportation in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.