Transit boom in some sectors not helping agencies driven into poverty by COVID-19

Photo by Mark Hallum

Bus ridership is doing well, but the MTA is not charging fares from these passengers yet; on roads, traffic is back with fewer for-hire vehicles and CitiBike is thriving.

All this has done little to boost ridership – and revenue – for the MTA, Port Authority or the city Department of Transportation, according to the testimony of leaders from several Tri-State agencies struggling to recover from the the COVID-19 pandemic.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says the agency she leads is taking a 12% funding cut that impacts their operations which mostly has fixed expenses and people are just not getting on the Staten Island Ferry at the rates they used to despite returning to the regular programming back in May.

“Roadway usage really plummeted and is now back to about 90% of what it was, but it’s a little differently distributed. We’re seeing the same levels of congestion in Midtown but you don’t have the same level of taxis, Ubers and Lyfts,” Trottenberg said. “Now CitiBike ridership is hitting new peak, I think that is not surprising to anybody.”

The same goes for the MTA, whose Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber explained will not not get significant funding from the meager recovery New York City is experiencing after an extensive effort to flatten the curve.

“Unfortunately, [a McKinsey study] had two pessimistic and a neutral projection about ridership and epidemiology about where things were headed, and we’re closer to the pessimistic. We have flattened out on subways at about 25% of normal ridership now and it doesn’t seem to be moving a great deal at this point,” Lieber said. “Buses are a little more, those are not generating revenue, however, and commuter rail is stuck at about 20%. So the more pessimistic scenario is bearing out, which is why we need this huge congressional intervention.”

Transit agencies are expected to need about $32 billion nationwide; the MTA is asking for just $4 billion in a federal stimulus to make it through the year and faces deficits as high $16 billion by 2024. Port Authority is asking for $3 billion from the next bill on Capitol Hill.

Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) General Manager Clarelle DeGraffe says recovery starts with the business community and reassuring customers that agencies are taking all measures for safety. The consensus among business leaders, however, is that employees will not return to offices until after Labor Day.

“It’s a difficult thing that people have been dealing with, we’ve gone through a lot over the past four – well, five months – and it’s a lot people have to get over,” DeGraffe said.

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