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Relied Upon at Height of Pandemic, Bus Workers Will Get Hit Hard by MTA Cuts

Riding an M15 express bus down Second Avenue in Manhattan, Nov. 18, 2020.
Riding an M15 express bus down Second Avenue in Manhattan, Nov. 18, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

During the peak of the pandemic last spring, MTA buses became the workhorse of the transit system, shuttling more daily riders than the subway for the first time in decades.

Even after fare collection resumed in late August, the ridership decline on buses never fell nearly as steep as subway use.

But when the MTA unveiled its proposed “Doomsday” cuts Wednesday — potentially slashing service by 40% by next May and eliminating more than 9,000 jobs — bus workers were set to absorb close to two-thirds of the positions lost.

Riders who rely on buses, meanwhile, were left wondering how they’d get around a city still slowed by COVID-19.

“Believe me, it’s going to be ugly,” said Michelle Singleton, 55, a nurse from Harlem who, prior to the pandemic, commuted on the M11. “That’s why I won’t be riding the bus any more.”

At the agency’s monthly board meeting, MTA officials presented worst-case scenarios should the agency be unable to secure $12 billion in emergency federal funding to help close the enormous deficits created by the pandemic.

Without a bailout, the MTA faces a slew of unappetizing prospects — including higher-than-projected fare and toll increases, the elimination of seven-day and 30-day unlimited MetroCards and significant cuts to subway, bus and commuter rail frequency.

“We know that any reduction in service will hurt the city and the region, including customers who need us most,” Patrick Foye, the MTA chairperson said at the meeting. “But without the certainty of substantial federal dollars, there is no recourse.”

For buses, that could mean the elimination of entire lines, a slowdown on long-planned route redesigns in each borough, even the loss of a next-bus texting service and on-board WiFi.

‘Heart of the Working Class’

The service cuts and longer waits could prove especially painful in areas of the city where riders depend on buses because they don’t live near a subway line.

“My doctor is in Flushing and I need the bus to get there,” said Jeanne Majors, 70, of southeast Queens. “But if I have to leave an hour ahead of time to get there, that’s going to be a real problem.”

Majors said buses “are already pretty crowded,” making it difficult for riders to socially distance. With increased gaps in service, she worries about safety.

“That would be bad for people who can’t afford an Uber or a Lyft,” she said. “And then when the bus pulls up, you’ll have dissension because it will be too crowded.”

The pain would extend to bus workers, whose ranks have been hard hit by COVID-19 deaths.

MTA Bus signage indicating masks are required for passengers, who rode free over the summer. July 7, 2020.
MTA bus signage indicating masks are required for passengers, who rode free over the summer. July 7, 2020.
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Nearly 63% of the MTA’s projected 9,367 job cuts would affect bus workers, officials said at the Wednesday meeting.

About 4,600 of the job losses would be among the workforce for local buses, with another 1,282 lost from the ranks of MTA Bus Co., which largely provides Express bus service between Manhattan and the boroughs.

During the height of the pandemic in the spring, bus drivers were on the frontlines around the clock, shuttling everyone from other essential workers to New Yorkers looking for a respite from the streets.

“It’s a form of mass transit that’s used by the heart of the working class, the essential of the essential,” said JP Patafio, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 vice president for Brooklyn bus drivers. “It’s an insult and we’re not going to take this lightly.”

‘They Take it Out on Us’

Georgetta Sterling, a bus operator for 20 years, agreed that crowding on buses could lead to increased commuter fury.

Ridership has been hovering at around half of what it was in 2019, with MTA data showing 980,000 bus trips were taken Monday. But those behind the wheel have had to contend with harassment from riders who refused to wear masks or follow social-distancing guidelines.

“If you cut two or three buses out of the way, that’s going to be hazardous for all,” she said. “Everything [angry riders] feel on the inside, they take it out on us.”

The potential hobbling of bus service comes after the MTA, in 2018, began a systemwide redesign of bus routes in an effort to speed service and attract new riders. That process has been on hold throughout the pandemic.

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said rollbacks would be troubling for a bus system whose ridership has been declining for several years.

“A year ago, we were reimagining bus lines and routes with redesigns,” she told THE CITY. “Now, we’re talking about eliminating them.”

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