As the MTA prepares to shut down the entire subway system every night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to begin an intensive cleaning regimen, the agency is relying on some new technologies to rid the trains of the virus, while deploying more buses to get essential workers where they need to go.
Roughly 11,000 New Yorkers currently rely on overnight service, and the MTA is adding 344 more buses to run 1,168 more bus trips a night. Some express buses that would normally run local at that time of night will continue to run express, as the MTA seeks to mimic subway service. All buses will be free during this time.
The agency is also offering one free door-to-door ride in a for-hire vehicle for essential workers who live an “unreasonable” distance from a bus stop—meaning if their trip would take more than an hour and 20 minutes or if it would involve two transfers.
But due to the speed with which the agency is rolling out this “Essential Connector” program, the only way to access the free ride is to sign up on the MTA’s website and wait for an email with more details. The agency is expecting to use the same service which is behind the Access-a-ride program, and users will have to call 511 to schedule the ride.
“We are going to learn and get better as we go,” New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg said. “We are going to become more efficient and learn more about the cleaning as we go.”
The decision to shut down the subway system overnight was made by Governor Andrew Cuomo—the MTA board, which is supposed to govern the agency, reportedly found out after the governor made the announcement last week. The decision came after Mayor Bill de Blasio had asked the MTA to shut down 10 stations so outreach workers could target the homeless population.
The MTA says the shutdown, which will begin early Wednesday morning, is about cleaning train cars and stations in “aggressive” ways that aren't possible if trains are still running and if the homeless are allowed to stay in the system. While daytime cleaning and overnight yard cleaning will be more “comprehensive” than it has been, every single train will also be cleaned in terminals overnight. In other countries, like South Korea, for example, trains are now cleaned 14 times a day. (Though Seoul does not have 24 hour service.)
The agency will also use this time to test multiple virus killing technologies from various companies, which includes UV lights and antimicrobial products that are applied to surfaces after they’ve been disinfected.
“They claim and we are in the process of verifying with federal regulators and with laboratories, that their products will eradicate the virus including COVID-19 for an extended period of time, 30 60, 90, days,” MTA Chairman Pat Foye said Monday. “That would be great news for all New Yorkers and frankly for all Americans.”
While Chairman Foye said the new cleaning will be much more extensive than the current regimen, he refused to say how much more it would cost, other than hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which he laid out at last month’s board meeting. Foye said he expected the cleaning costs to be reimbursed by FEMA anyhow or addressed in the second $4 billion request in emergency aid from congress.
“The decision to suspend train service between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. is smart, as cleaner trains will help make subway travel safer,” George Gresham, president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, wrote in a statement provided by the MTA.
As for how the MTA will close its 472 stations, Chief Safety Officer Pat Warren said some have gates that will be locked, while others will have a police officer stationed outside to keep people out.
“The police presence in the subways during the period from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. is going to be at an unprecedented level,” Chairman Foye said. “Both NYPD and MTA police.”
The MTA won’t say what the expected costs of this policing effort will be, Warren said he’s just figuring out what the overtime will be now.
The NYPD didn’t return our emails for comment or say how many officers it expects it will deploy during these hours.
The MTA has hired 150 of the 500 new police officers it budgeted for, and is expected to swear in an additional 150 by July.
The agency will have additional shuttle service at the stations known to move the estimated 2,200 homeless New Yorkers that sleep overnight in the system. But it’s still relying on the city to connect homeless New Yorkers with social services and places to stay.
On Monday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio admitted that the city’s outreach methods will not change, but defended his program, and predicted that forcing people to leave the subway system will have a positive effect.
“By disrupting that, four hours a night where that can't happen anymore our homeless outreach teams will be there, NYPD outreach teams will be there to make sure that there's the maximum chance of getting people to come in and stay in,” de Blasio told NY1. “So I think it actually triggers a whole different reality.”
Even before the pandemic, homeless New Yorkers and outreach workers themselves condemned the city’s approach because the city’s shelters are often crowded and unsafe. Last month, the City Council introduced legislation that would require the de Blasio administration to provide single-room housing for homeless New Yorkers. Recently the city has made more hotel rooms available to homeless New Yorkers, but it’s not clear if the mayor supports the measure.