New York City transit leaders suspected from the start of the pandemic that the crisis would sap subway and bus passenger numbers, strain the system’s budget and underscore its over-reliance on fares.
But they didn’t expect passenger numbers to drop for so long.
At its most recent board meeting, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority revealed it will have a $2.5 billion deficit by 2025. .
The shortfall, which is 12 percent of the operating budget, comes a year ahead of forecast, largely as passenger numbers struggle to recover in the face of a rapidly evolving coronavirus and the continued popularity of remote working. Some transit drivers may also stay away after several high-profile violent incidents have reinforced perceptions that the system has become more dangerous.
The authority was already heavily indebted before the pandemic, when more than five million people took the city’s trains every weekday. Today, passenger levels hover at about 60 percent of that number, and forecasters predict they will reach just 80 percent of prepandemic levels by 2026 — falling short of previous expectations. from 86 percent by next year.
If the authority, which operates the city’s subway, bus network and commuter rail lines, can’t fill its budget, it has limited options, including reducing service, laying off employees or increasing fares.
Service reductions could cause a reduced transit system to limp. But similar measures in the wake of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, still vivid in the memory of some New Yorkers, made 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 in 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 detail in addressing the looming budget gap, but emphasized that there had been no cutbacks in services.
“Transit for us in New York City and the region is like air and water,” said Mr. love. “We cannot exist without it.”
Lessons from the Great Recession
The last time transit leaders made their way out of a fiscal crisis, the damage for some riders was permanent and painful.
Officials have permanently eliminated the subway’s V train. The G Line ceased serving some heavily immigrated working-class communities in western Queens, although that portion of the line had already been reduced to weekend services only. Dozens of bus schedules were abbreviated or cancelled.
When the austerity measures came in 2010 — after the 2008 recession — Anadelia Cerón, 60, could no longer take the G train from her home in Queens to Brooklyn, where she did odd jobs. The changes added half an hour of travel time to her commute, and transportation generally became more time-consuming and complicated, she recalls.
“Those of us who earn the least are always the most affected,” said Ms. Cerón, a Colombian immigrant who moved to New York more than 30 years ago.
The authority had begun to run trains and buses less frequently to fill a $400 million budget gap, and the cuts infuriated many New Yorkers. During a pivotal board meeting, a Brooklyn resident Irene Berkson took to the lectern to protest the closure of the B37 bus. She had spoken to 500 commuters who couldn’t attend the meeting, but they signed a petition urging the authority to save the Bay Ridge route.
“I’m trying to save the neighborhood,” Ms. Berkson, a retired teacher, told the board, relaying the frustration of co-applicants. In a 2011 study, the authority estimated that 15 percent of all transit drivers were affected by the cuts, while 1 percent of bus drivers stopped using the system at all.
The authority gradually restored service over a few years – the W line in particular was brought back to life after a six-year hiatus. An analysis of Federal Transit Administration data by Steven Higashide, a researcher with the advocacy group TransitCenter, shows that the authority was back to a similar level of service by 2016.
But some routes were never replaced and the reliability of the metro continued to deteriorate.
While the exact economic impact of the cuts is unknown, research from the American Public Transportation Association shows that every $1 invested in public transportation delivers $4 in economic returns to communities. Rough estimates would put New York’s lost productivity in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not far beyond.
The unrest surrounding the reduced service led to the formation of the Riders Alliance, a grassroots transit user organization 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 the government’s austerity measures and we have to accept that that’s our new reality,” Ms Plum said, considering the current fiscal threat to transit. “This is a time when we should be pushing for more service. We shouldn’t talk about what we’re going to lose.”
An uncertain future for riders
The authority has not specified any plans to address the current looming shortage. Despite opposing vows from transit officials, observers and lawyers fear the authority will rethink its familiar roadmap.
At the height of the 2020 pandemic — and before the federal bailout — the authority had proposed cutting subway service by 40 percent, eliminating some bus routes and cutting service on the others by a third. Transit officials have previously said they are targeting bus routes and subway lines that overlap.
Public transport has continued to suffer significant losses across the country since 2020, as many white-collar commuters have worked from home and left the system. The number of rides on public transit fell by 40 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While rider numbers have partially recovered, it remained well below prepandemic levels last year.
While the MTA lost nearly half of its annual business revenues during that period, its budget problems have predated the pandemic. The system was saved from decay in the early 1980s when lawmakers allowed it to issue bonds. However, the indebtedness of the authority rose.
Expenditure exceeds revenue and the government has borrowed heavily to keep up. The amount of outstanding long-term debt issued by the authority increased by 55 percent between 2010 and 2021, from $25.8 billion to $40.1 billion.
A one-off shot of more than $14 billion in federal pandemic aid helped stabilize the MTA’s budget, but long-term financial health relies heavily on rider returns. Nearly 40 percent of the agency’s operating revenues come from fares, a percentage higher than most other major public transit systems, which rely more on government subsidies.
Yet many cities around the world face similar tax problems. Research by TransitCenter and Governing magazine has found that in the United States, the threat of a budget collapse is even greater for transit systems in Washington and Boston. According to the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport, passenger numbers in other places, such as London, Berlin and Paris, remain well below prepandemic levels.
“Without new sources of local or state revenue, transit services face truly impossible choices,” said Mr. Higashide.
In New York, there is a risk that any new cuts in services will increase the inequality between the workforce exposed by the pandemic. While white-collar workers often have the option to stay at home, many low-paid workers, who are mostly people of color with longer commutes, have to travel to work even as the number of coronavirus cases rises.
“It is the duty of the MTA leadership to be creative and innovative,” said New York State Auditor Thomas DiNapoli, urging the agency “to be open and transparent — communicate what the options are.” are what they’re looking at.”
The MTA is seeking new sources of income. Officials last week moved one step closer to implementing a congestion pricing program that would impose tolls on drivers entering Manhattan under 60th Street. The authority has released an environmental assessment of the pricing plan, which would charge drivers as much as $23 to drive into the borough. The proceeds could be used to finance improvements to the transit network.
Some New Yorkers have already resigned themselves to the possibility of more cuts, even as the price of a ride goes up. The MTA usually raises rates every two years but has postponed walks through the pandemic for fear of losing even more riders.
Alejandra Llinás, 58, said she misses the days when it was cheaper, faster and easier to get around the city. As the service pulls out, “You’ll get used to it,” she said as she sipped a beer at a cafe in Jackson Heights, Queens. “But of course that’s not convenient.”