After months of free bus trips, the MTA is reimplementing fares for city buses as the agency grapples with a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.
Starting August 31st, the front doors of buses, which have gone unused for months in an attempt to protect drivers from potential exposure to COVID-19, will reopen, allowing bus riders to start paying a fare again.
"The fact is, we do not operate as a free service, as much as we may want to, and we can't afford to lose out on these revenues at this moment," Interim President of NYC Transit Sarah Feinberg said during a press briefing from the Michael J. Quill Bus Depot in Manhattan. "It's important for us financially to get back to collecting the fare."
The MTA is losing $200 million a week due to a loss in fares, tolls, and COVID expenses. With the decrease in bus ridership, $431 million has been lost as riders stay home or opt for other means of travel like bikes and walking during the pandemic. Had bus fares been collected these past few months, the MTA would have gained another $159 million.
Those numbers are a drop in the bucket for the $16 billion budget shortfall the agency has anticipated through 2024.
But Feinberg said, "We are in a moment when every dollar counts."
"It's a policy debate," she said, when asked how bus fare collection would make much of a difference considering the size of the budget shortfall. "Would we like to become an agency that can run free transit? That's an absolutely fair policy question. It's not a policy question that we can debate at this moment while our finances have fallen off a cliff, unfortunately."
There will be one or two weeks of a communication period, with fares expected to be paid starting August 31st.
Riders on Manhattan Select Bus Service routes can pay their fare through OMNY readers at the rear door of the buses. OMNY will be available at the front door of Manhattan and Staten Island buses.
OMNY readers will be installed in the Bronx on buses in the coming weeks, said Al Putre, the OMNY programs executive and chief revenue officer at NYC Transit.
The Riders Alliance called on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA to implement all-door boarding on all buses by the end of the year in response to today's announcement.
"Post-COVID, all-door boarding is more important to riders than ever," the transit advocacy group's organizing manager Stephanie Burgos-Veras said in a statement. "All-door boarding both helps riders maintain social distance and speeds up buses with the latest fare-payment technology."
To keep bus operators safe as a wave of riders begin to get on the bus through the front door, the MTA is moving the marker behind which passengers are supposed to stand further back inside the bus to keep them from getting as close as they typically would to a bus operator.
Plastic barriers around the bus driver's seat have also been installed, and some buses have mask dispensers for riders without a face covering.
After dozens of transit workers died during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus infection rate has been driven to nearly zero among transit workers, which Pat Warren, the MTA's chief safety officer, attributed to social distancing measures, disinfecting, and mask wearing.
Buses will be retrofitted with more enhanced air filter systems, known as MERV filters, to mitigate the potential spread of coronavirus. Some filters have already been switched, with additional filter changes expected in the coming weeks. The filters within the systems are also being changed every 30 days, compared to every six to eight weeks prior to the pandemic.
"To date, there have been no coronavirus clusters tied to public transportation and we're going to do everything we can to keep it that way," Warren said.