Governor, MTA Still Not Talking About Restoring 24-7 Subway Service

This is going to keep happening for the foreseeable future. Photo: MTA
This is going to keep happening for the foreseeable future. Photo: MTA

Two out of three is bad.

This week, MTA officials has made two considerable transit changes that will go into effect by the end of the month — the return of bus fare collection and the elimination of a crucial overnight taxi service for essential workers inconvenienced by the loss of overnight subway service. But neither the MTA nor Gov. Cuomo are yet talking about restoring full 24-7 subway service.

An MTA spokesman dismissed calls for restoration of overnight service in the city that never sleeps as premature.

“[MTA CEO] Pat Foye and [NYC Transit President] Sarah Feinberg have said overnight closings will continue through the pandemic and there’s nothing new to announce at this time,” said the spokesman, Tim Minton.

For his part, Gov. Cuomo is not prepared to make any change.

“The overnight shutdown has facilitated the most intensive disinfection program in the history of the subway system, one that has inspired confidence as riders return to the system every day,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “The governor has indicated that overnight subway service will remain closed for the duration of the pandemic so the MTA can continue its crucial cleaning and disinfecting efforts.”

But after Friday’s announcement about the end of the “Essential Connector” late-night taxi service, which set up about 1,500 people per night with cab rides, advocates made it clear that the time had come for New York’s full subway to be restored.

“Nighttime riders from healthcare to hospitality have some of the longest, hardest commutes. To truly come back, New York needs a subway that never sleeps,” said Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein, who had called the taxi program a “half-measure” anyway. Pearlstein also pointed out that most riders are wearing masks and that there do not appear to have been any COVID spikes due to transit.

Ben Fried of TransitCenter made a similar point.

“Ongoing indefinite suspension of overnight service makes little sense as a [COVID] suppression tactic at this point,” said the transit group’s spokesman. “Transit ridership has been rising while New York City’s case rate remains low. We know respiratory transmission is a much bigger risk than the surface transmission the overnight suspension purportedly helps prevent. Why does the governor insist on keeping this going?”

In addition, the restoration of the 24-7 service is not just an improvement that’s needed for transit customers, but for the rest of us, too, suggested Joe Cutrufo of Transportation Alternatives.

“It’s impossible to replicate subway service using our streets the way they’re currently laid out,” he said. “If you try to replace trains with buses, you quickly learn we don’t have nearly enough dedicated bus lanes. If you try to replace trains with bikes, you quickly find that the protected bike lane network doesn’t serve all riders or reach enough neighborhoods. And don’t bother trying to replace trains with cars. The geometry just doesn’t work.”

And the numbers don’t make sense, either: The closure of the subway system for cleaning and for the eviction of homeless people is not a money-saving program. In fact, it raises additional costs for cleaning crews, for outreach workers and for train crews, who are still moving subway cars around the system, albeit empty, for lack of storage.

Roughly 11,000 people were using the subway during the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. hours when service was cut at the height of the pandemic — but in normal times, roughly 100,000 people ride the rails during those four hours.

“Ridership has tripled since the low point during the pandemic, so the MTA could be collecting fares from tens of thousands of people overnight,” said Pearlstein. “So without ‘Essential Connector,’ it’s time to restore the full service.”

Pearlstein and others are concerned that Cuomo has no intention of restoring the city’s beating underground heart, given how the governor portrayed his closure at the start. On April 28, he held up a copy of the Daily News — with the wood, “Next Stop, Purgatory” and the image of a homeless person in the subway.

cuomo with daily news homeless wood
The governor used a Daily News front page about the homeless “problem” as part of his motivation for closing the subways overnight. Photo: Mike Groll/Governor’s Office

“He held up the tabloids as his justification for closing the subway system,” Pearlstein said. “We agree that people should not be living in the subway, but Gov. Cuomo is not only the governor of the subway, but he’s also the governor of housing. So closing the subway system to kick out homeless people when tens of thousands of essential workers need the subway to get to work is cutting off your nose to spite your recovery.”

Besides, Pearlstein added, the governor recently announced that he is about to publish a book about his leadership of the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the governor thinks he can release a book about he handled the pandemic, that suggests that it’s time to bring the subway system back to normal,” he said.

In prior comments, the governor has certainly been cagey about the restoration of 24-7 subway service on all lines.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Cuomo said on Friday that there was nothing new to add and directed Streetsblog to the Big Dog’s July 29 statement on the matter — a statement filled with caveats.

Question: Can you guarantee that 24-7 subway service will come back?

Cuomo: When you say 24-7, it sounds like it’s not a seven-day system. It operates seven days. It’s closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. … So yeah, it’s closed in the middle of the night so they can disinfect trains. And as soon as we get past this and you don’t have to disinfect the train, then we will be in a different place.

At that time — and since he’s said nothing since, we have to consider this opinion as the current thinking on the third floor — the governor was very quick to point out how much he liked having the subway remain shut overnight.

“The trains have been dirty for decades – right?” he said. “If I told you that we were going to get to a point where we were going to disinfect the subway car — [remove] every newspaper, every coffee cup, everything has to be out of the train. You can’t have a napkin and that train. Homeless people have to be off the train — you would have said, ‘Impossible. It is impossible to do that in New York City.’ And that’s what we’re now doing. Well, to disinfect trains, you have to close a couple of hours a night. Yeah.”

Question: But will they come back?

Cuomo: Yes — if you don’t have to disinfect a train every night, then, yes.

But if the stated reason to disinfect trains is to keep the homeless off them, it appears that the governor has given himself an open-ended invitation to keep the subway closed.