How the pandemic is threatening public transit systems across the US

Coronavirus

NEW YORK CITY (NewsNation Now) — The COVID-19 pandemic has placed major strains on mass transit systems in the U.S. and around the world.

For a time, ridership completely flatlined — an impact that experts say some agencies may never fully recover from without massive government intervention.

NewsNation examined three of America’s largest transit systems to gauge the impact not just on commuters, but the broader economy.

Many agencies saw ridership levels drop by 90-95%, wiping out billions in fare revenue that can never be recovered. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency, whose budget is heavily reliant on fares, provides the nation’s most dramatic example.

Mitchell White is a regular subway commuter, making the hourlong trek from his home in Brooklyn to his office in Manhattan several times a week. He knows the MTA, facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, is weighing a “doomsday scenario” of service cuts and layoffs, and he understands the implications for post-pandemic New York.

“It doesn’t matter how many people are vaccinated,” White said. “Or how many offices are open. If nobody can get to where they need to go, then there isn’t going to be a reopening of New York City.”

Chicago Congressman Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia is a member of the Future of Transportation Caucus. He fears that not only is White correct, but that deep cuts will drive many commuters away for good — plunging mass transit into a death spiral.

“Obviously, with the pandemic, transit agencies are hurting,” he told NewsNation. “Their revenues have plummeted, and they need help from Washington right now. My point is that transit isn’t really an option.“

Jim Aloisi, Massachusetts’ former transportation secretary, now lectures on urban planning at MIT. 

“For large urban cities across America, transit is at the epicenter of their recovery,” Aloisi said.

Pick a big city. Thousands of office workers have left downtown. They’re working from home. Maybe they lived downtown and they’ve moved to the suburbs, or farther. When they come back depends on how America manages the pandemic. If they come back depends on whether they have a reliable way to get there.

“This has an enormous cycle of economic impact if the transit agency isn’t able to deliver people to their destination on the day they want to go,” Aloisi said.

That, in an unnerving nutshell, is the issue officials are grappling with in major cities across the country. For the economy to come back, transit needs to be ready, even when no one is riding. 

The myriad systems that serve the nation’s capital exist in a delicate symbiotic relationship of timing and logistics. They’re among those in which ridership’s been down by as much as 90%.

Kate Mattice runs the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. Before that, she spent more than a dozen years with the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Budget and Policy.

“The Washington, D.C. region has notoriously bad traffic,” Mattice said. “But a big part of our ability to move anybody is the fact that we have a reliable transit system. And so, when people do start moving and coming back, we need to make sure we still have that reliable transit system to move those people to keep the economy and quality of life where we need it to be.”

By the numbers, that will be no small task. Because of the pandemic, D.C.’s Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is considering eliminating weekend rail service for the first time ever as it struggles to close a nearly half-billion-dollar deficit.

It’s an even bigger number in Boston — $579 million. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is weighing widespread cuts to subway, commuter rail, bus and ferry service.

New York, however, with its outsized system and heavy reliance on fares, is simply in a class by itself.

The MTA’s budget deficit, $6.1 billion dollars, is on track to nearly quadruple to $23 billion by 2024 without ongoing federal aid.

Facing the greatest financial crisis since it was founded in 1968, New York City’s transportation agency is considering cutting subway service by 40%. The current “doomsday” scenario would also eliminate some bus routes and reduce the rest by one-third. Service on two of America’s busiest commuter rail systems would be cut in half.

In all, more than 9,300 jobs would be lost.

Conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute studied the issue. It believes that as Manhattan struggles to come back from the impact of COVID-19, its transit system must be considered too big to fail.

“New York City’s lifeblood is its subway system,” says Michael Hendrix, the institute’s director of state and local policy. “If the MTA’s promised cuts do come through, absent federal aid, New York City’s recovery will be years farther off.”

In April, Mitchell White lost his father to COVID-19. His mother and four of his siblings have battled the virus and survived. He understands the risk of getting on a full train better than most.

Imagine standing on a subway platform made packed by service cuts.

“Having to worry, ‘Does the person next to me have COVID?’ and you can’t step away from them. It’s a horrible situation to put people in,” White said. “Having to choose between getting to work and risking your life. No one should have to make that decision.”

Experts say when it comes to mass transportation, tough decisions are the only kind left.

New York is in line for a $4 billion piece of the latest federal stimulus package— but for the nation’s largest transit system, all $4 billion buys is time.

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