NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — An MTA program offering free cab rides to essential workers during the overnight subway shutdown is coming to an end.
The agency launched the for-hire vehicle program to offer riders a way to get around while the system was shutdown so subway cars and stations could be disinfected and cleaned more thoroughly during the pandemic.
In a statement announcing the cancelation of the program, effective Aug. 30, the cash-strapped agency said it spent $6 million on free cab rides since the May 6th shutdown.
Mass transit advocates say the MTA could make more money by bringing overnight subway service back.
"They're already running empty trains, they need to let people back on and collect the fares. The MTA would actually make money and riders would be able to get where they need to go overnight," said Danny Pearlstein with the Riders Alliance. "If they open the turnstiles up to riders, they will make millions of dollars off the tens of thousands of riders who want to take the subway."
In an interview with WCBS 880’s Michael Wallace, MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye says simply, the MTA cannot afford to keep the program running.
“The MTA is broke,” Foye said. “We are desperately in need of $12 billion of additional federal funding.”
He adds that the program has already cost the agency $6 million and is no longer necessary because the agency has significantly increase bus service during the overnight hours.
The MTA estimates 1,500 stranded subway riders used the so-called Essential Connecter program with each ride costing roughly $49.
"At the height of the pandemic, it was critically important to ensure essential workers who were subway-dependent could get to overnight shifts reliably, and without spending considerably more time on their commute than they were used to," said Sarah Feinberg, New York City Transit Interim President. "We are proud of how quickly and efficiently we were able to stand up a program of this magnitude. Given our significant financial challenges, we are unfortunately no longer able to provide this service to the limited number of people it was serving sporadically, and the even smaller population it was serving regularly."
Three new express bus routes linking boroughs have been added to replace overnight subway service. The routes were designed based on location data that riders from the program voluntarily provided when using the for-hire vehicle service.
Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road will also cross-honor fares when the subway is closed.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who technically has full authority over the MTA, has not said when 24-hour subway service will resume. He ordered the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. shutdown so subway cars could be cleaned and cleared of the homeless.
"But it didn't go the extra mile, it didn't get the job done in providing New Yorkers who need it with a safe, private place to be," Pearlstein said.
The Riders Alliance now is calling on the MTA to resume some overnight trains in order to help the agency make money again.
Though, Foye says that won’t actually work.
“The Riders Alliance is wrong on the making money,” Foye said. “While the pandemic continues – and this is something that Governor Cuomo has also said – while the pandemic continues and it's important to realize that we're not out of the pandemic, we're going to continue the closures from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.”
He stressed that the number of riders who utilize the subways between those hours is miniscule in comparison to all other times, and so long as the pandemic continues, the MTA will work to ensure every subway car, station and bus is properly disinfected.
In terms of the $12 billion in federal aid needed to save the MTA, Foye notes that they are looking for alternate routes to take, but he’s worried.
“We were hopeful and cautiously optimistic that something would happen in July and August, that obviously didn't happen,” Foye said. “There was also no aid for the state of New York or the city in New York, which is which is discouraging. We're continuing to work on it. But the message is, we expected at the beginning of this year the MTA has an operating surplus of $81 million. We had a $51.5 billion capital plan. The pandemic changed everything and drove the money we get from our customers and fares and tolls, and taxes and subsidies that have been put in place by the state legislature over a period of time.”
He says the MTA is not looking at layoffs currently, but they will be significantly cutting costs within the agency in the next year.
“What we're starting with is reducing the amount of overtime. We are terminating or modifying consultant contracts and we're taking every dollar of non-service and non-payroll cost out of the system,” Foye said.
However, is the MTA does not receive $12 billion in aid, they will have to take “more drastic steps related to service.”