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As Express Bus Ridership Tanks, Faithful Worry About Being Left in Cold by Cuts

Commuters take a near-empty BxM7 express bus from The Bronx to Midtown, Manhattan, Dec. 11, 2020.
Commuters take a near-empty BxM7 express bus from The Bronx to Midtown, Manhattan, Dec. 11, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The MTA’s pandemic-sparked fiscal disaster could put express bus service in the fast lane to massive reductions — including the potential loss of some interborough lines, transit sources said.

As transit officials map out potential cuts to subway, bus and commuter rail service, tens of thousands of express bus riders from the north Bronx to the south shore of Staten Island are bracing for a replay from a decade ago — when 12 routes were discontinued, along with weekend service on a pair of lines.

The sweeping 2010 cuts included eliminating the V and W subway lines, rerouting the G, M, N and Q trains, chopping 20 local bus routes — and downsizing express service for New Yorkers who do not live near trains. Some service changes were later undone.

“I moved off of Staten Island because of the 2010 cuts. My commute had increased each way about half an hour,” said Vittorio Bugatti, the founder of an express bus advocacy group and now a Riverdale resident. “I have lived this, definitely, and I don’t want to live it again.”

While the MTA has yet to specify where cuts will be made, agency officials have warned of 40% reductions to city bus and subway service and 50% on the LIRR and MetroNorth if billions of dollars in federal funding do not materialize for a system whose fare, toll and tax revenue has been crushed by the pandemic.

The cost of operating and maintaining hundreds of diesel express bus coaches — most passengers pay $6.75 a ride — along with a customer base that is a fraction of the MTA’s local routes may make them a target, transit sources told THE CITY.

“If they cut 40%, this won’t be a reliable source of transportation,” said Sherissa Perez, who was waiting before 8 a.m. Friday for a BxM7 from Co-Op City in the North Bronx to Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan.

‘Doomsday’ Plan Near

Facing a Dec. 31 deadline to pass next year’s budget, the MTA board will vote Wednesday on a 2021 spending plan. Under a “doomsday” scenario presented last month, bus workers would absorb nearly two-thirds of the projected 9,000-plus layoffs without billions in emergency funding.

“Without substantial federal aid, the MTA will be forced to implement drastic service cuts none of us want to have to make,” said Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesperson. “The best way to prevent those actions and to preserve service for those who rely on us most is for Congress to deliver the funding we need.”

Sherissa Perez waits for the next BxM7 express bus in Co-op City, Dec. 11, 2020.
Sherissa Perez waits for the next BxM7 express bus in Co-op City, Dec. 11, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Local bus routes last year carried more than 1.7 million riders on weekdays, according to MTA figures, while the express routes moved more than 388,000 passengers, a figure that’s been declining since 2016.

Many of the routes feed into business districts in Manhattan, whose office population has shrunk during the pandemic. An October report from the Partnership for New York City projected that just 15% of Manhattan office employees will return by the end of 2020.

“It hurts to cut service of any type, but the fact is that cuts to express buses might harm one person to the 50 people that are riding the local routes,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a transit research and advocacy organization. “Cuts should be done with a scalpel and not a hatchet.”

A Dwindling Ridership

In 2019, the least-used of the routes — the QM3 between Little Neck, Queens and Midtown Manhattan — averaged 104 riders on weekdays, according to MTA figures. The busiest — the SIM1 between Eltingville, Staten Island and Lower Manhattan — averaged more than 5,800 riders on weekdays.

On Friday morning, only 13 riders were on a Manhattan-bound BxM7, scattered across nearly 60 seats.

“It’s more comfortable than taking a local bus to the subway,” said Carl Mullin, a security guard who takes the BxM7 between Co-Op City and the Upper East Side. “If they cut service, I’ll do what I have to do, even if it means spending more money to commute.”

On Staten Island, where the borough’s bus routes were overhauled in 2018, dread is creeping in with express riders over the potential for reduced frequency.

A commuter boards a BxM7 express bus in The Bronx, Dec. 11, 2020.
A commuter boards a BxM7 express bus in The Bronx, Dec. 11, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“When you feel your job may be on the line if you cannot get to it in time, that becomes very stressful,” said Christine Pecoraro, a legal secretary who commuted between Bulls Head and Hells Kitchen on the SIM4 or SIM8 prior to the pandemic.

“If buses get cut down, that will affect me having a job.” said Lauren Yentis, who takes the SIM8, which runs between Huguenot and Midtown. “I can’t leave any earlier than I do now because I have to take kids to school on certain days.’

Bugatti said that riders who pay for a premium service on the coaches sometimes feel “overlooked.”

“The city and the MTA focus on subways being so important,” he said. “But what about people in the boroughs who don’t have subway access?”

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