The Pandemic Wasn’t Supposed to Hurt New York Transit This Much

New York City’s transit leaders guessed from the start of the pandemic that the crisis would sap subway and bus ridership, strain the system’s budget and underscore its overreliance on fares.

But they didn’t expect passenger numbers to slump for so long.

At its most recent board meeting, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority revealed that it will face a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025. An infusion of federal aid that has propped up the system during the pandemic will have dried up by then with no more relief expected from Washington.

The shortfall, which amounts to 12 percent of the operating budget, arrives a year sooner than predicted largely because ridership has struggled to rebound in the face of a quickly evolving coronavirus and the continued popularity of remote work. Some transit riders could also be staying away after several high-profile violent incidents have amplified the perception that the system has become more dangerous.

The authority had already been heavy in debt before the pandemic, whenmore than five million people packed the city’s trains every weekday. Today, passenger levels hover at about 60 percent of that number, and forecasters predict they will reach only 80 percent of prepandemic levels by 2026 — trailing earlier expectations of 86 percent by next year.

If the authority, which operates the city’s subway, bus network and commuter rail lines, cannot plug its budget, it has limited options including cutting service, laying off workers or raising fares.

Service reductions could allow a diminished transit system to limp along. But similar measures in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, still vivid in the memory of some New Yorkers, left the city harder to navigate and harder to work and live in. Many now fear a return to those conditions.

It’s a dilemma shared by many transit systems across the United States — from Philadelphia to Chicago to San Francisco — and abroad in European capitals.

In a phone call last week, Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, avoided specifics when addressing the looming budget gap but stressed that service reductions were out of the question.

“Transit for us in New York City and the region is like air and water,” Mr. Lieber said. “We cannot exist without it.”

Lessons from the Great Recession

The last time transit leaders cut their way out of a fiscal crisis, the damage for some riders was enduring and painful.

Officials permanently eliminated the subway’s V train. The G line stopped serving some heavily immigrant, working-class communities in western Queens, though that portion of the line had already been reduced to weekend service only. Dozens of bus schedules were abbreviated or canceled.

Alejandra Llinás (on left) and Anadelia Cerón (on right). The house cleaners were Queens residents in 2010 and altered their routines after transit service cuts. Credit…Carly Zavala for The New York Times

When the cuts came in 2010 — following the 2008 recession — Anadelia Cerón, 60, could no longer take the G train from her home in Queens to Brooklyn, where she worked odd cleaning jobs. The changes added half an hour to her commute, and getting around generally became more time-consuming and complicated, she recalled.

“Those of us who earn the least are always affected the most,” said Ms. Cerón, a Colombian immigrant who moved to New York more than 30 years ago.

The authority had started running trains and buses less frequently to help plug a $400 million budget hole, and the cuts angered many New Yorkers. At one pivotal authority board meeting, a Brooklyn resident, Irene Berkson, took the lectern to protest the closure of the B37 bus. She had spoken to 500 commuters who could not attend the meeting but signed a petition urging the authority to spare the Bay Ridge route.

“I’m trying to save the neighborhood,” Ms. Berkson, a retired teacher, told the board as she relayed the frustration of fellow petitioners. In a 2011 study, the authority would estimate that 15 percent of all transit riders were inconvenienced by the cuts, while 1 percent of bus riders stopped using the system altogether.

The authority gradually restored service over a few years — notably, the W line was resurrected after a six-year hiatus. An analysis of Federal Transit Administration data by Steven Higashide, a researcher at the advocacy group TransitCenter, shows that the authority returned to a comparable level of service by 2016.

But some routes were never replaced, and the subway’s reliability continued to deteriorate.

While the exact economic impact of the cuts is unknown, American Public Transportation Association research shows that every $1 invested into public transportation yields $4 in economic returns for communities. Rough estimates would place New York’s lost productivity into the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not far beyond.

The turmoil surrounding the diminished service led to the formation of the Riders Alliance, a grass-roots organization of transit users that remains active. Betsy Plum, the group’s executive director, recalls her own commute growing from one train ride to three.

“We so often just accept that the government makes a cut and we just have to resign ourselves to that being our new reality,” Ms. Plum said, contemplating the current fiscal threat to transit. “This is a moment when we should be pushing for more service. We shouldn’t be talking about what we are going to lose.”

An uncertain future for riders

The authority has not specified plans to tackle the current looming deficit. Despite vows to the contrary from transit officials, observers and advocates fear that the authority will revisit its familiar playbook.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020 — and before the federal bailout — the authority had proposed slashing subway service by 40 percent, eliminating some bus routes and cutting service on the remaining ones by a third. Transit officials have previously said they target bus routes and subway lines that overlap.

Transit has continued to suffer steep losses nationwide since 2020 as many commuters with white-collar jobs have worked from home and abandoned the system. Trips on public transportation fell by 40 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Although ridership has partially rebounded, it remained well below prepandemic levels through last year.

While the M.T.A. lost nearly half its annual operating revenue in that time period, its budget problems have long predated the pandemic. The system was saved from decay in the early 1980s when lawmakers allowed it to issue bonds. The authority’s debt load, however, ballooned.

Expenses have outpaced income, and the authority has borrowed heavily to keep up. The amount of outstanding long-term debt issued by the authority rose by 55 percent between 2010 and 2021, up from $25.8 billion to $40.1 billion.

A one-time shot of more than $14 billion in federal pandemic aid helped stabilize the M.T.A.’s budget, but its long-term financial health depends heavily on the return of riders. Nearly 40 percent of the agency’s operating revenue comes from fares, a higher percentage than most other major public transit systems, which rely more on government subsidies.

Still, many cities around the world are confronting similar fiscal woes. Research by TransitCenter and Governing magazine found that in the United States, the threat of a budget collapse is even greater for transit systems in Washington and Boston. Ridership in other places like London, Berlin and Paris remains well below prepandemic levels, according to the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport.

“Without new sources of local or state revenue, transit agencies face really impossible choices,” Mr. Higashide said.

In New York, any new service reductions risk deepening work force inequities laid bare by the pandemic. While white-collar workers often have the option to stay home, many lower-wage workers, who tend to be people of color with longer commutes, must travel to jobs even when coronavirus cases surge.

Subway stations in lower-income areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Upper Manhattan, where residents typically depend more on public transit, have rebounded far faster from the pandemic than stations in office-heavy sections of Manhattan.

Bus service was cut back the last time the Metropolitan Transportation Authority faced a fiscal squeeze.Credit…Carly Zavala for The New York Times

“It’s incumbent upon the M.T.A. leadership to be creative and innovative,” said Thomas DiNapoli, the New York State comptroller, urging the agency “to be open, transparent — communicate what the options are that they’re looking at.”

The M.T.A. is pursuing new sources of revenue. Officials last week moved a step closer to implementing a congestion pricing program that would toll drivers who enter Manhattan below 60th Street. The authority released an environmental assessment of the pricing plan, which would charge drivers as much as $23 to drive into the borough. The proceeds would fund improvements to the transit network.

Some New Yorkers are already resigned to the possibility of more cuts, even as the price of a ride goes up. The M.T.A. usually raises fares every two years, but it has staved off hikes through the pandemic for fear of losing even more riders.

Alejandra Llinás, 58, said she misses the days when getting around the city was cheaper, faster and easier. As service retreats, “You get used to it,” she said as she sipped a beer at a cafe in Jackson Heights, Queens. “But of course it’s inconvenient.”

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