The MTA will end overnight service indefinitely from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to try experimental cleaning methods and to remove the homeless, which they say are a safety hazard during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some advocates say this is the right move, others fear this is the end of the city’s 24-hour subway miracle.
“If the MTA and the police handle this correctly, this will ensure that our members on the overnight shift can clean the stations and trains without having to contend with the mentally ill and homeless,” TWU Local 100 spokesperson Pete Donohue wrote in a statement. “This is exactly the type of aggressive and dramatic action we wanted to better protect our members from contracting the virus from people camped out in the system.”
The governor announced the plan—which begins on May 6th—during his Thursday press briefing in Albany, flanked by MTA Chairman Pat Foye and the interim president of New York City Transit, Sarah Feinberg, a former board member appointed by the governor. Neither spoke once throughout the governor’s announcement.
The Albany press corps didn’t ask a single substantial question about the shutdown so it’s unclear how much the new plan will save, or cost. Or how effective cleaning the subway overnight would be compared to the cleanings that are currently taking place. Or if this is really more about removing homeless people from stations, an effort which has ramped up this week with the assistance of the NYPD and social workers, and the hiring of more MTA police.
Foye denied it was about the homeless. “Obviously the homeless has become a significant issue and as the governor noted yesterday, there's been rapid deterioration especially in the nighttime period on the subways,” he said, speaking on NY1 Friday morning.
“Homeless New Yorkers are sleeping on the subway because the City and State—nearly two months into this crisis–are steadfastly refusing to offer them somewhere better to go,” Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement. “Many homeless New Yorkers are rightfully afraid of crowded congregate shelters, where coronavirus continues to spread and where the COVID-19 mortality rate is 50 percent higher than the NYC overall population.”
She argues booting people on the street is simply cruel.
“What is actually needed are safe, private spaces where maintaining social distancing is possible. This plan should be paired with efforts led by qualified social workers to compassionately and safely house people seeking shelter in the subway,” she wrote.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supports the governor’s plan, had asked the MTA to close 10 terminals this week, which the MTA refused to agree to do. He also announced he’d be opening 200 safe haven beds this week for the homeless.
As for an end date, the governor didn’t mention it. And the MTA left it open, simply adding at the bottom of its press announcement, “when customer demand returns, and innovative and efficient disinfecting techniques have been successfully deployed systemwide.”
"The governor should announce specific milestones that will trigger the resumption of overnight service. (For example, the number of days below a specific threshold of new COVID-19 infections, or the return to a specific level of systemwide transit ridership.),” TransitCenter Executive Director David Bragdon said in a statement. “The criteria announced by the MTA today were much too vague. Riders need more assurance that this is a temporary measure.”
Nicole Gelinas with the Manhattan Institute called the shutdown a “historic error and signals that New York City is in indefinite retreat,” and questioned how effective it will be at removing homeless people. She added there should already be enough time and room to clean trains now anyway.
“This essentially sends a signal to nightlife that their reopening will be delayed indefinitely. This passenger traffic (pre-corona) can't be replicated with bus service (e.g., 12k people leaving Manhattan on subways during the 1-2am hour, 9k people coming in during the 4-5am hour). You would need 200 buses, which is more expensive than train service. It also compresses ridership into the 11-midnight hour, midnight-1am hour, as riders have anxiety about missing the last train,” she wrote.
As the MTA faces a nearly $8 billion shortfall due to lost revenue from reduced ridership and taxes, Gelinas, who like the rest of the public hasn’t seen a breakdown of cost savings or expenses for this effort, suggested it could be a way for the agency to save money.
“One might reasonably say, well, it's just for the pandemic, but they will be under tremendous budgetary pressure to maintain these closures as the state cuts back subsidies, as tax revenue and fare revenue continue to remain well before pre-corona levels. Tellingly, they have not announced a target re-restart date for overnight service,” Gelinas pointed out.
The MTA said it will reimburse any essential worker with credentials for two Uber or Lyft rides during the overnight shutdown. Additionally, the governor said dollar vans and buses will be available to get people home during those hours. When asked about how to ensure those vehicles are also disinfected, an MTA spokesperson said that’s up to the Taxi and Limousine to regulate. Foye said there will be regular bus service in the evening, not shuttle buses as well, which will be the “primary method of moving those customers.”
The Regional Plan Association praised the governor’s move and had itself suggested shutting down subway lines in order to get ahead on construction work, an idea the MTA rejected with the L train project, but has done on smaller sections of lines.
“We applaud the MTA for taking on this huge task and for prioritizing service for low-wage and shift workers who were already vulnerable and needed improved service. RPA first suggested replacing some late night subway service with high-speed bus service in our Fourth Regional Plan in 2017 as a critical way to implement cleaning and maintenance protocols and advance capital construction projects more rapidly,” Tom Wright, President and CEO of Regional Plan Association, wrote in a statement.
The MTA did not say it would use the shutdown to do any additional work, but a spokesperson confirmed the planned work will proceed as planned.
And the possibility of the shutdown continuing after the crisis and a fare hike—more than the biannual one—is still on the table.
“The last thing that we want to do is make any service cuts at all. The last thing we want to do is increase the fare. But I feel like that's sort of asking me what's going to happen at the end of this crisis,” interim New York City Transit president Feinberg said during a Friday appearance on PIX 11.
“You know, I couldn't have told you two weeks ago that we'd be where we are today,” she continued. “Everything changes every day, so it's too hard to predict what's going to happen down the road.”