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Subway and Buses Boss Pitches MTA Salvation as Help for Working Poor

New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg stands next to a video screen Atlantic Avenue-Barclays station in Brooklyn during a news conference to promote mask wearing, Sept. 14, 2020.
New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg at a news conference at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays station in Brooklyn to promote mask wearing, Sept. 14, 2020.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

The MTA’s push for $12 billion in federal funding to avoid staggering service cuts and layoffs is increasingly being framed by transit officials as a matter of equity for low-income New Yorkers — and as a call to action for business leaders.

Facing subway and bus service reductions of up to 40% — and with a federal stimulus package stalled until after the presidential election — the transit agency has begun more prominently playing up the role of public transportation as a “vital stepping stone” out of poverty.

“To walk away from New York City Transit is to walk away from every struggling neighborhood in New York City, and to give up on those who live there,” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit said at an industry event recently.

Feinberg is making the case to transportation and city leaders that severe cuts to subway and bus service will disproportionately harm people in low-income communities — while appealing to companies and other organizations to assist the MTA.

The transit chief said corporate help could be in the form of employers bringing workers back to their offices and the transit system or by joining the MTA’s campaign for federal funding.

“Industries and large companies struggle with their role and how they can contribute to a brighter future for all,” she said in her presentation. “Supporting transit can be that contribution.”

A survey of major employers by the Partnership for New York City found that 83% of workers plan to rely on mass transit when they return to their offices, but that only 8% had returned as of mid-August. Sources said that figure was closer to 15% by the end of last month, as some financial firms have begun calling more employees back to the workplace.

THE CITY obtained a copy of Feinberg’s Sept. 30 keynote speech at the virtual Oliver Wyman Forum on the future of urban mobility, in which she said the subway and bus system needs to expand on creating opportunities for New Yorkers.

She made a similar presentation alongside real estate and business leaders at a “Bringing New York Back” panel that will be shown this week as part of the 92nd Street Y’s virtual “City of Tomorrow” event.

A coronavirus-driven collapse in fare, toll and tax revenue has put the MTA on the edge of financial ruin. But pleas for a federal bailout have gone unanswered, while cuts to service and long-planned improvements loom.

‘Twiddling Their Thumbs’

With hopes for a rescue from the Trump administration dwindling, several MTA board members and budget watchdogs are prodding the transit agency to look for alternative revenue sources, including an increased gas tax.

“They can’t keep twiddling their thumbs with, ‘Oh, when will the feds step in to fix this all?’” David Jones, an MTA board member, told THE CITY. “We’re going to have to do something pretty dramatic here.”

A conductor wears a mask as a subway train leaves the station. June 12, 2020.
A conductor looks out their window moments before a train takes off, June 12, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Jones, who was appointed to the MTA board by Mayor Bill de Blasio, noted any cuts to subway or bus service would hit hardest among low-income commuters without personal vehicles.

“If you have longer waits for the train, you might think you’re better off just taking a cab to get to and from work,” said Carol Rivera, 46, of Harlem, who was waiting for the No. 1 train at 125th Street. “But who has that type of money to spend every day on a cab? I would have to walk.”

That’s why, Feinberg said during her presentations, transit needs to be seen as the “access point to a better life” as well as to education, work and healthcare.

“It’s the engine of our economic development, but it’s also a lifeline,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization. “I think it’s important that we consider who needs transit the most.”

In Harlem, Miguelina Sarante, 62, who commutes from The Bronx terminal of the No. 1 line to 125th Street and then onto a bus to her job at a store, said service reductions would be disastrous for working New Yorkers.

“People would get to work late and my 45-minute commute now would get closer to two hours,” she said. “That’s time I don’t have, that no one has — it would affect us all.”

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