NEW YORK — The nation’s largest mass transit system is drastically reducing service levels as its ridership numbers plummet due to the coronavirus and worker shortages cause service delays.
More than 800 trains were delayed due to crew shortages on Monday alone, according to Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the MTA’s New York City Transit division, which runs the city’s buses and subways.
Fifty-two of the MTA’s 70,000 workers have tested positive for Covid-19. The authority was unable to say how many others are in quarantine, how many are merely calling in sick and how many are sick but have yet to get tested.
“Obviously, it’s greater than 52,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye during a news conference Tuesday.
“It’s a struggle but we’re providing the service that New York needs right now,” said Tony Utano, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, the MTA’s biggest union. “Some of our members have tested positive, some have called in sick and some were quarantined by the MTA as a precaution because they may have come in contact with someone who has the virus.”
Starting March 25, New York City’s subways will run at 75 percent of regular service. Some lines will not run Monday through Friday, including the B, W and Z lines. Some express lines will run local. Starting March 26, New York City’s bus system will run at 75 percent of its regular service levels. The MTA’s railroads will see service cuts, too.
“Our number one goal is preserving the service for the heroes on the front lines of the crisis, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said MTA Chief Operating Officer Mario Péloquin.
New York is following in the stead of other American cities, none of them as reliant on mass transit as New York. In recent days, Minneapolis’s Metro Transit has cut service 40 percent. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is reducing its nighttime and weekend service. Washington’s Metro has cut service, too. It’s also closed two stations near the Tidal Basin in an effort to keep cherry blossom lovers from crowding the system.
Reducing service during a pandemic is a delicate balancing act. Cut service too much, and officials risk crowding riders into a subway car at a time when social distancing is key to stopping the spread of the pandemic. Run too much service, and officials risk alienating their staff. The service cuts are expected to have only a nominal impact on the MTA’s bottom line.
But a recent report did suggest the uptick in delays was leading to occasionally unhealthy levels of crowding, something the MTA dismissed out of hand.
Foye noted: “Ridership has sunk to never-before-seen lows,” with subway ridership alone down 87 percent.
“I think that we are providing a significant level of service for 13 percent of our customers,” Foye said.
Bus ridership is down by more than 70 percent. Railroad ridership is down 94 percent on Metro-North, which services New Rochelle, and more than 70 percent on the Long Island Rail Road.
Transit advocates greeted Tuesday’s news with mixed reactions.
Lisa Daglian, who runs the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said it was just a matter of time.
“With increasing worker shortages and decreasing ridership, we appreciate that the MTA will keep a good level of service to get front line workers where they need to go, while reducing crowding and maintaining social distancing for all,” she said.
Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director at the Riders Alliance, was less impressed.
“Many of the New Yorkers taking buses and subways right now are essential workers,” he said. “Majorities of all healthcare, childcare, and grocery workers depend on transit. Without them on the job, our crisis response will fail. The MTA should make every effort to maintain service. The federal government must deliver a multibillion dollar rescue for riders.”