As the fall falls on the virus-weary city, New Yorkers have new reasons for optimism.
More people are on the sidewalks. The gyms are open again. Although the still-dark executives of Broadway and Manhattan grumble about “widespread concern,” many offices are not as empty as they were before Labor Day. Meanwhile, indoor dinner and classroom instruction are returned by the end of the month – with restrictions.
But there is still a big missing piece in the complex puzzle of New York’s slow renaissance, and transit forces are struggling to rewrite it. The subway is still a relative ghost town.
Is the subway safe?
“Absolutely,” Foy said.
With fewer riders, cleaner trains, overnight shutdowns and wearing masks already north of 90%, the MTA chairman seems to have science on his side. But it still needs to gain the trust of millions of its former riders, as well as reluctant Republicans in Washington who have been insanely slow to step up with financial aid.
“It’s a five-alarm fire, a 100-year fiscal tsunami,” said Foy, a veteran of the Empire State Development Corporation and the New York and New Jersey Port Authorities. “We get half of our revenue from riding-based customers and we receive a package of subsidies from state law,” shares of the mortgage registration tax, mobility tax and other revenue streams that have also been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. “The state of New York and the city of New York are in equally dangerous waters,” Foy said. “Only the federal government has the resources and capabilities.”
The stakes could hardly be higher for New York’s economy as the city comes to life again. These 36 lines, 472 stations and 691 miles of track are not just a means of transportation. They are the irrigation system that feeds all those gleaming skyscrapers in Manhattan and sustains the city’s booming economy for the past 116 years. No one will get anywhere with a few million extra cars on the streets.
Subway riding is increasing from the depths of spring, when ticket and crane travel is down 95% from last year. The number of passengers is now 73%, reaching about 1.6 million motorcyclists per day. That’s a good sign, but it’s still far from the 5 million that went up on a regular weekday last year.
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MTA figures tell a fascinating story about the uneven recovery of the metropolitan area.
City bus riding is almost half back. And traffic on MTA bridges and tunnels – the Triborough Bridge, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and five other crossings – is down by just 10%, suggesting many people still feel more comfortable. in their own cars. On Wednesday, 833,000 cars and trucks paid MTA fees. Meanwhile, the agency’s two bus lines – the Long Island Railway and the subway-north rail – are falling even sharper than the subway.
What does it give there?
Part of this may be that suburban travelers are more likely to own cars. But a bigger explanation, Foyer said, is that many suburban professionals still work from home or from satellite offices outside the city. “This is not possible if you are a construction worker or a waiter, or you work in a pharmacy,” he said. “You do not have the option to work remotely.”
But the model in New York – cars first, urban transit next, suburban railways after that – is a repeat of what has already happened in major European cities, the MTA chairman said. So much of the focus now is building trust at home.
Foyer noted a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association, which concluded that transit travel is not a vector for the spread of the virus. And MTA staff are working with researchers at Columbia University who believe that ultraviolet light can help disinfect the transit system. Closing the subway overnight has helped transit workers and teams from the city’s homeless services department find shelter for homeless people – or at least accompany them from the system. And Cuomo, Foy, and other New York officials continue to look to Washington as they try to alleviate local problems.
“The behavior of New Yorkers is not in the hands of Washington,” Foy said. “A lot depends on us.” Clearly, there are still ways to go.
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At an extraordinary meeting of the MTA board in August, budget officials warned that if Washington did not step up, the only alternative would be a 40% cut in bus and subway and a 50% cut on Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, plus 8,500 cuts.
Side Foyer: “The Great Depression wasn’t as bad as this one.”