Advocates: COVID-19 Pandemic Is An Existential Moment for New York City’s Public Transit System—and the Regional Economy
New York – New York has emerged as the worldwide epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 200,000 confirmed cases and nearly 12,000 deaths statewide. The economic fallout from shuttered businesses and layoffs leaves New York struggling with major budget deficits, and among the hardest-hit agencies is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. New data released today from TransitCenter demonstrates the MTA’s dramatic dropoff in both ridership and tax revenues and the need for as much as $8 billion in immediate additional federal emergency funds to keep public transit up and running during the pandemic.
On the heels of TransitCenter’s analysis, advocates from the New York City region called on the federal government to quickly issue new emergency support for the MTA, which faces catastrophic funding shortfalls as it continues to provide critical transit service to hundreds of thousands of essential workers even while many of its own workforce on the front lines fall ill.
Advocates argued that the MTA must remain in good financial health for New York City to successfully fight and recover from the virus. A weakened transit system would result in vastly reduced service, creating overcrowding on buses and trains and dramatically exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. Crowding endangers critical essential workers like hospital staff, grocery and retail employees, and sanitation workers—as well as frontline transit workers themselves. Strengthening the MTA immediately will help the authority to maintain service, allow for physical distancing, and slow the spread of COVID-19. And providing relief funds to bolster New York’s transit system once the peak of the COVID-19 threat recedes will enable the whole region to recover faster.
In addition, advocates called on Congress, especially New York’s influential Congressional delegation, to approve New York’s proposed congestion pricing program, which would toll drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district. The program was authorized in last year’s New York State budget. This year, state officials liberalized the program’s terms, permitting the MTA to spend toll revenue on daily operations for the next two years as it recovers from the twin health and economic crises of COVID-19. Prompt federal approval of congestion pricing would provide the MTA with a new, locally-sourced revenue stream to complement the requisite direct federal aid.
“For New York, the COVID-19 pandemic is a bigger emergency than Superstorm Sandy and the Great Recession rolled into one. This is an existential moment for public transit, the lifeblood of New York,” said Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Our buses and subways are doing the critical work of carrying doctors, nurses, janitorial staff, grocery workers, deliverypeople—all the essential workforce that allows residents to shelter in place and stop the spread of coronavirus. If transit falters, the results will be catastrophic. Lives and livelihoods are on the line every single day, and the federal government is the only recourse. Congress needs to step up now and ensure the MTA gets the funding it needs to keep critical workers moving in the moment of the city’s greatest need.”
“New York’s—and the nation’s—recovery hinges on the MTA’s,” said Riders Alliance Policy & Communications Director Danny Pearlstein. “One million essential public transit riders depend on the MTA’s subways and buses to get to work to defeat the pandemic. All other funding sources are tapped out. All eyes are Congress. New York’s representatives in Washington must deliver a fair transit aid package acknowledging the key role New York subways and buses play in New Yorkers’ lives and the nation’s economy.”
TransitCenter’s analysis calculates revenue shortfalls and additional operating expenses over the next twelve months and paints a dire picture for the MTA. With ridership down by 93% on subways and buses and as much as 97% on commuter rail, the MTA is losing hundreds of millions weekly in fares alone. Estimates of tax revenue shortfalls based on previous economic downturns predict billions in additional losses as revenue sources, from payroll and petroleum taxes to tolls and direct state aid, plummet. The analysis indicates that the MTA will require as much as $8 billion in additional emergency funding beyond the CARES Act to weather the pandemic and resulting economic crash over the next year.
In order to meet that need, advocates pointed out the importance of ensuring that federal rescue dollars match the scale of the crisis in New York, which has become the hardest-hit region in the world; the death toll in New York State alone eclipses that of any country except the United States itself. The previous stimulus package, advocates argued, did not direct sufficient revenues toward the MTA, which carries 38% of the entire country’s transit ridership and yet only received 15% of CARES Act transit funds.
Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said, “The MTA is the lifeblood of the Tri-State Area and is essential for New York’s environmental goals. It is even more vital now, as frontline workers rely on it to get to their jobs and the MTA workforce struggles with the horrific impacts of this virus. That’s why we join the call for a federal stimulus for the MTA. We need to keep the MTA functional to keep New York running, both now and after the COVID pandemic. Failure to do so would be catastrophic for both the economy and the environment.”
“Public health required a drastic drop in transit ridership, leaving a stark financial picture for the MTA,” said Tom Wright, President and CEO of Regional Plan Association. “Congress must once again come to transit’s rescue in the next federal aid package. Without reliable public transit, New York’s economy will not continue to function during this crisis, or as we recover, if essential workers cannot get to jobs safely.”
“The NYC region will not recover from the COVID emergency without a strong MTA,” said Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst at Reinvent Albany. “New York’s transit system is in deep trouble and needs this additional down payment of $8B in emergency funds from Congress to stay afloat in the months to come. As the full impact of the unprecedented COVID-19 public health and economic crisis becomes known, even more federal funds for the MTA may be necessary to ensure the recovery of the region.”
“New York City’s recovery is impossible without a functioning transit system to move it forward,” said Jaqi Cohen, Campaign Director for NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. “The MTA faces a funding shortfall that is unprecedented in the agency’s history, all while it continues to transport New York City’s essential workers to the frontlines throughout this crisis. If the MTA is forced to cut service, the resulting overcrowding on buses and subways would be disastrous. New Yorkers are counting on our leaders in Washington to secure the funding necessary to keep our transit system whole and to help safeguard our city’s recovery.”