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With thousands returning to work, New York City and state at stalemate on mass transit plans

A train conductor wears a protective mask while riding in a New York City subway car. | Getty Images

A train conductor wears a protective mask while riding in a New York City subway car. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Monday begins the first phase of New York City’s economic reopening, with close to half a million people venturing again to work — but instead of a comprehensive coordinated strategy, New Yorkers have seen bickering between Mayor Bill de Blasio’s City Hall and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and confusion over how to tackle the first real shot at crawling out of the coronavirus hole.

“New York is starting to reopen without a comprehensive plan to restore riders’ trust in transit,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders’ Alliance. “The risks to essential workers and everyone’s ability to get around are significant.”

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After nearly three months of lockdown, the once mundane act of commuting to work now determines the future not only of the country’s biggest public transportation authority but the economy of its biggest city — and neither can recover without the other.

But the city and the authority can’t agree on how to enforce social distancing, with the MTA essentially saying it’s too hard to even try. For many still leery of mass transit, the city’s offered little by way of options to ease almost certain gridlock, or expand options for bikes, mopeds and scooters.

“I know a lot of people are spooked about the idea of riding a train or a bus and that’s understandable,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, in an interview. “Getting people back to work depends on them having options for getting there. We have to solve this problem.”

The MTA, which runs the city’s trains and buses, moved 9.9 million riders before the public health crisis took hold in March. Now ridership is at 1.1 million, and the authority is teetering on financial collapse with expected losses nearing $8.5 billion. That number is eclipsed slightly by the city’s shortfall which has ballooned to $9 billion amid a frozen economy.

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The central issue for transit is crowding in a city where New Yorkers used to regularly fling themselves onto packed subways and buses like sardines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people keep six feet of distance to stem the spread of the virus.

De Blasio wants the MTA to block off seats and limit capacity on subways and buses to prevent overcrowding.

“Those kinds of adjustments will make a lot of difference, and then people will see it and feel it, and they will feel safe,” de Blasio said during a June press conference.

The MTA says that’s not happening

“To suggest that the New York City subway system, as ridership is growing, can allow for social distancing I think suggests an unfamiliarity with the system or a lack of sincerity,” said Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of the MTA’s New York City Transit, during a Friday press conference.

Social distancing was difficult even when ridership was at an all-time low, Feinberg argued. She has advised people to put as much space between them and other riders as possible and to always wear a face mask. The MTA estimates the mayor’s social distancing requirements would result in the authority only being able to serve 8 percent of riders. State and city officials will hand out 2 million free masks and gallons of sanitizer for the first phase of reopening.

The dispute between City Hall and the MTA led to open sniping last week, just four days before the city is supposed to partially open again.

“The entire city is practicing social distancing, but the MTA seems to think it’s unnecessary on the subway,” tweeted de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein. “If we want to avoid a surge after we reopen, we need to think more creatively.”

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MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins shot back: “The Mayor has a lot of nice ideas with no actual plans to solve, manage or implement.”

The MTA, which Cuomo effectively controls, has focused on disinfection, conducting nightly cleanings of trains, buses and subways, which involve shutting down train service between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The authority is experimenting with UV light to disinfect surfaces and recently launched a 30-day pilot program to test whether new air filters can kill microbes on buses and subways.

But recent federal guidance indicates surfaces are a secondary danger to the person-to-person transmission of Covid-19. Transit advocates say more can be done.

“There’s been some guidance that’s come out on all people should wear a mask when riding transit, but that doesn’t really ease peoples’ minds,” said Jaqi Cohen, campaign director for Straphangers, an advocacy group run by the New York Public Interest Research Group. “That’s not the same as having distance.”

The MTA should increase service to reduce crowding, which could involve reducing cleaning hours to better accommodate essential workers who leave early in the morning for their shifts, said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

“Running as frequent service as possible with as many cars, and to do that to move people safely and quickly, is going to show there are ways to create more options for social distancing,” Daglian said.

San Francisco is making its trains longer to limit the number of commuters riding in a car, but Feinberg said during a Friday radio interview that’s “not possible” in New York because it has a “very different system.”

Elected officials and the MTA have also pushed the city to expand rapid bus lanes to prevent crowding on buses.

“To its credit, the MTA has proposed a vast increase in the bus lane network,” Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance said. “Now the City and DOT must finish and implement a plan that puts riders first on busy streets.”

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But city transit officials have yet to provide clear answers on either of those overarching questions, despite pressure from the MTA to add 60 miles of new lanes.

“We’ve discussed bus lane expansion with the MTA, and we look forward to their commitment to increased service on bus lanes the City creates to safely serve more New Yorkers,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in an email.

Instead, de Blasio has told New Yorkers to “improvise” how they get to work and the mayor, fond of being chauffeured around in his city SUV, said he expects more New Yorkers to drive.

“In the short-term, if people are going to use cars because that’s what makes them comfortable and, obviously, there still is a lot less traffic on the road, then they’re going to use cars,” he said.

That brings its own challenges.

“As the traffic increases, the buses are going to slow down,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

While personal car use might be an alluring option in the era of the coronavirus, most city residents don’t own a car and can’t afford to regularly take for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft.

“Telling people without cars to drive doesn’t offer any solutions to the millions of people that don’t have that luxury,” Sadik-Khan said.

How long it takes residents to return to mass transit largely depends on the economic recovery of the MTA, which was in fiscal crisis before the pandemic hit. The federal government allocated nearly $4 billion to the MTA in its coronavirus stimulus package, but the transit authority has called for an additional $3.9 billion.

“If the MTA doesn’t have the money to run the extra service and do things like install the power substations that will allow for increasing service … the potential for the vicious death spiral of transit is very real,” Daglian said.

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