Gov. Cuomo Guarantees 24/7 Subway Service Will Return (Sort Of)

Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit
Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

The subway that is supposed to never sleep is going to wake up (most likely), according to the man in charge.

Gov. Cuomo told Streetsblog that the subway would return to the 24/7 service at a press conference on Monday morning — though he did give himself a huge amount of wiggle room.

Full 24/7 service was ended in May in order to remove homeless New Yorkers from the system and to disinfect subway cars and stations. At the time, the governor said it would return, but since then he’s hedged. And on Monday, he hedged again, saying full service would returned … once he’d determined the disinfecting process was no longer needed.

Here’s how it went down between this reporter and the governor.

STREETSBLOG: More and more workers are worried that 24/7 subway service won’t come back ever, and that will make their commutes worse, they’ll be stranded late at night. Will you guarantee that full 24/7 subway service will come back?

CUOMO: Yeah, we always said that when we were stopping the subway service for several hours in the middle of the night right. … So yeah it’s closed in the middle of the night so they can disinfect trains, and as soon and as we get past this and we don’t have to disinfect the train then we will be in a different place.

But then the governor pivoted — as he has in the recent past — to seeing the benefits of shutting down the system for four hours a night.

CUOMO: If I told you that we were gonna get to a point where we were gonna disinfect a subway car — now to disinfect a subway car means every newspaper, every coffee cup, everything has to be out of the trains, you can’t have a napkin in that train, homeless people have to be off the train — if I told you 10 months ago, you would have said impossible. It is impossible to do that in New York City. In my 62 years I’ve never seen that ever, and that’s what we’re now doing to disinfect the trains you have to close a couple hours a night.

STREETSBLOG: But will they come back to 24/7?

CUOMO: If you don’t have to disinfect the trains every night then, yes.

The Cuomo answer was similar to previous instances when the governor praised the all new lemon-scented subways. But by ultimately saying 24/7 service would come back, the governor put daylight between himself and MTA leaders who have used other language or dodged the question entirely. New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg recently said that the MTA “intends” to restore full subway service when asked why the agency wouldn’t set any metrics for its return.

And MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye refused to promise that 24/7 service would return when he was asked by multiple reporters after last week’s MTA Board meeting.

When subway overnight subway service was axed in early May, the MTA replaced it with a series of free buses that the agency said would do enough to replace the trips that about 11,000 people will still taking to and from work at that time. So far the bus service hasn’t received numerous complaints, but at May’s MTA Board meeting, Felicia Park-Rogers of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said some riders in Queens were left outside waiting for buses for up to 30 minutes overnight.

And in light of Cuomo’s answer today, there is the overarching question of whether the subway’s nightly disinfecting shutdown is backed up by science at this point. A recent report from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign suggested that the latest research on coronavirus transmission shows that surface spread is not as likely as person-to-person, which the organization suggested was a scientific clearance to restore 24-hour service. Tri-State Executive Director Nick Sifuentes reiterated that point when talking about Cuomo’s guarantee.

“We now have a much better sense of how this virus spreads than we did in February or March, and we know that  spread via surfaces is uncommon compared to respiratory droplets,” said Sifuentes. “So we should focus less on cleanings that require overnight closures and yet can be undone by one unmasked rider sneezing openly, and more on requiring masks, improving ventilation, and running high-frequency service — including overnight — to help riders keep their distance.”

Other advocates also found themselves at their wits’ end when it came to the governor’s fixation on spotless subways.

“Gleaming surfaces are not what riders need to be safe from one another or from COVID,” said Riders Alliance spokesperson Danny Pearlstein. “Every exterior photo-op of powerwashing train cars just looks like desperately needed resources down the drain. The governor needs to provide a timeline for restoring the 24-hour subways that essential and service-sector workers depend on. He also needs a plan to safely and privately house homeless New Yorkers.”

The governor also may still have to contend with State Senator Brad Hoylman’s pending bill that would require the MTA to have public meetings and lay out a full justification to cut 24/7 service.