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NYC Subway Pandemic Cleaning Costs Could Soak MTA

An MTA workers disinfects the Nostrand Avenue station during the coronavirus outbreak.
An MTA workers disinfects the Nostrand Avenue station during the coronavirus outbreak, April 7, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Cleaning costs in the subway could hit half a billion dollars this year because of the pandemic — and go on for a long time to come, according to the MTA.

New York City Transit had budgeted $322 million for cleaning and disinfecting its 472 stations and thousands of subway cars in 2020. But the coronavirus outbreak will significantly increase those costs beyond this year, according to MTA Chair Patrick Foye.

The increased cleaning is similar to what transit agencies around the world are undertaking during the global pandemic.

“It will be hundreds of millions of dollars, on the order to $400 to $500 million,” Foye said late last week. “Obviously, that is a first order of priority for our customers and employees during a pandemic and also as it begins to subside and normalcy begins to return.”

Even amid a huge ridership drop, New York City Transit has been spending an additional $15 million a month on subway cleaning since the outbreak began in early March, an agency spokesperson told THE CITY.

The MTA, which has an annual budget of about $17 billion, has also increased cleaning of Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North trains and stations.

While the MTA says its entire fleet of subway cars and buses is now being disinfected every 72 hours, subway stations and “high-touch surfaces” have been disinfected twice a day since March 11.

That includes scrubbing 3,700 turnstiles, 3,600 trash cans and 2,300 machines that dispense MetroCards.

The increased cleaning comes as the MTA’s death toll from COVID-19 has grown to 79 employees — many of them subway or bus workers — and as the agency has requested another $3.9 billion in emergency federal funding on top of the $3.8 billion commitment it received last month.

A Worldwide Scrubbing

Meanwhile, the International Association of Public Transport has been chronicling how transit systems around the world have increased cleaning during the pandemic. Some examples:

• The Seoul Metro is disinfecting trains daily, cleaning stations and platforms. Transit officials also set up hand-sanitizing stations.
• The Beijing Metro is disinfecting station escalator handrails and “other important areas in stations” every hour.
• The Taipei Metro is cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched station surfaces every four hours.
• Milan’s Azienda Transport Milanesi is cleaning handrails, seats and surfaces daily.
• The Tehran Metro disinfects stations hourly.

Ben Fried of TransitCenter, an advocacy group, said the link between cleaning and public safety is “painfully obvious.” Additional disinfection of the New York subway will be especially important to help draw customers back to a system that has lost 95% of its ridership during the pandemic, he noted.

“A vaccine will help, but it’s not like widespread immunity will happen overnight,” Fried said. “Until the virus becomes a more distant memory, the agency will need impeccable cleaning regimens to help people feel comfortable riding transit.”

A person walks through an empty City Hall station during the coronavirus outbreak.
A masked commuter walks through City Hall station on April 20, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The head of the union for subway and bus workers said the MTA should increase the ranks of cleaners — and restore previously cut train and station cleaner positions.

“Things have changed dramatically,” Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, told THE CITY. “It’s not just cleaning, but disinfecting that needs to be a top priority.”

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