Op-ed | A bittersweet celebration of the NYC subway’s 116th birthday

traffic safety
Interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg (Photo by Todd Maisel)


It’s easy to take for granted the presence of the subway system in New York. After all, this Tuesday, Oct. 27, is the New York City subway’s 116th birthday. In all that time, there was never a question about the system’s vital importance to the city.

It has been called the lifeblood of New York, and it is a system responsible for providing tens of millions of families with a stepping stone to opportunity – a better job, a better school, a path to a better life at the other end of a $2.75 commute.

But here is the reality: I worry we are dangerously close to not being able to provide that stepping stone to the millions that we do for much longer.

Over the last seven months, we at the MTA have watched COVID absolutely decimate our revenues. Millions and millions of New Yorkers staying home for the majority of 2020 was the right thing for health and safety, but it also meant billions and billions in financial losses. 

In order to save our city’s transit system, we have implemented hundreds of millions of dollars worth of painful cost controls just to make a dent in our massive deficit– but it’s not enough. We’re still reliant on billions in loans just to keep trains and buses moving. And now we face the threat of draconian service cuts and thousands of layoffs unless the federal government steps in with additional emergency aid.

At this moment, most pundits would say our prospects for getting that emergency aid are grim – despite the backing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the entire bipartisan New York delegation. That is because the Republican Senate leadership in Washington seems uninterested in saving transit – not just in New York City, but across the country. 

This failure to act could have dire, tragic consequences. 

Public transportation in NYC is a critical lifeline, providing access to friends, family, work, school, and quality social and life services – life’s necessities. It is also the most important and reliable piece of infrastructure for the millions of people who have kept working through the pandemic to keep New York and our country functioning, those same workers rightly held up as heroes by federal lawmakers. If we want to truly honor the dedication and sacrifice of our essential workers during this unprecedented crisis, the last thing we should be doing is ripping a reliable commute out from under them. 

Mass transit is a central pillar of American society, and elected officials in Washington – on both sides of the aisle – cannot pretend they don’t see the communities that will suffer most if we abandon public transportation.

So, while we celebrate our system’s important place in the fabric of our city, the bottom line is this: I want our subways and buses to be around for another 116 years and then some. But for that to happen, we need federal aid and leaders who can recognize not just what the subways have meant to the city, but what its role should and can be moving into the future. 

Sarah E. Feinberg is acting MTA NYC Transit president.