Op-ed | Meeting the MTA’s ‘Challenge’ on the COVID-19 pandemic

Mask Force
MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye joins the Mask Force to distribute free masks to customers on Sept. 14, 2020.
Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


Safety has always been a first-order priority at the MTA, but since COVID-19 arrived in New York our focus on health and safety has only intensified. This virus poses a unique challenge unlike any other, which has put a premium on innovation at our agency. We recognize the need to look far and wide for new ideas to incorporate into our nation-leading response to this public health emergency.

That’s why the MTA and Transit Innovation Partnership launched the COVID-19 Response Challenge over the summer, along with New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority. In the months since, we’ve received 200 compelling proposals showcasing technology that can help us restore public confidence in mass transit and ensure that we continue to meet customer and workforce needs in light of the global pandemic.

This week, we will announce the nine winners of the Challenge. Their cutting-edge technologies tackle issues ranging from air purification to connecting riders with MTA services via micro-mobility solutions. These ideas could eventually be implemented systemwide once they are more thoroughly tested through a proof of concept process.

We’re already moving forward with a pilot from one of the winners, the Knorr Brake Company and its Merak division. As we announced last week, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road have started testing the company’s air filtration system, which claims to kill 99.99998% of airborne viruses, bacteria and particulate matter, including SARS-CoV-2— which causes COVID-19.

Thanks to Metro-North President Cathy Rinaldi and LIRR President Phil Eng for leading these efforts as we work with the Environmental Protection Agency to verify these findings. What’s really exciting is that we are the first transit agency in North America to test this technology. The potential benefits could last well after the pandemic has ended.

During the crisis, we’ve led the way in testing such technology as UV lighting, antimicrobials, electrostatic sprayers, and apps allowing customers to see how crowded buses and commuter trains are as they approach so they can determine where it would be best to sit to maintain social distance or whether to wait for the next one to come.

All of us here at the MTA will never stop looking for new ways to keep our system clean and safe. But we need New Yorkers to do their part, too.

Wearing a mask is the right thing to do, and it’s required by state law on mass transit. This is about protecting yourself and respecting your fellow commuters.

Since March, the MTA has made six million masks available to customers— thanks to generous donations by the State and City— to help encourage mask wearing. I know the vast majority of riders already wear masks, but we need to get as close to universal compliance as we can.

Our Mask Force has done an incredible job reaching out to riders about the importance of this issue. I’ll be out in the system with them again this week to hand out masks and thank riders for wearing theirs. I’ve had some of my most rewarding encounters with the public during these shifts. The community spirit on display is heartwarming, and I don’t doubt for a second that our great city will pull through this crisis.

But we need to stay vigilant. New Yorkers are smart and tough. We can do this together.

Patrick J. Foye is chair and CEO of the MTA. 

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