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As West Side locals and politicians rowdily rallied for a Hell’s Kitchen subway stop, a weakened enthusiasm for weekday commuting has threatened the MTA’s funding negotiations with the city. 

Weekday subway cars still have room to spare. Photo: Phil O’Brien

According to Crain’s New York Business, the agency’s weekday ridership has plateaued at approximately 60 percent of its pre-pandemic numbers, leaving the transit authority with a $2.6 billion deficit by 2025 should no additional funding materialize. Despite Mayor Eric Adams’ insistence that workers return to offices in person, remote and hybrid models remain firmly a part of the city’s post-quarantine work culture, with 78 percent of companies retaining a hybrid policy as of May 2022.

Although weekend ridership is up to 70 percent of pre-pandemic capacity, MTA officials worry that without daily commuter revenue, the agency will be forced to further reduce service and abandon much-needed repairs. MTA officials will soon meet with city and state leadership to negotiate further budgeting needs and work out the details of the transit system’s 20-Year Needs Assessment (which includes a potential Hell’s Kitchen subway stop on an extended 7 train line) and follow-on Capital Program. 

An MTA meeting on July 27 reviewed a McKinsey report on changing commuter trends, with MTA Chair Janno Lieber and board members acknowledging that urgent action is needed to recapture ridership. 

Lieber said: “Dealing with this is the only way we’re going to be able to support the region’s recovery and deliver on our mission. And that is an equity mission as well as a mobility mission, that every community — and especially those who don’t have the option to get into a $50 Uber — can get where they need to go and true accessibility for all.”

“The whole problem isn’t work from home,” said Kevin Willens, Chief Financial Officer of the MTA. “If you look at the three big drivers — it’s work from home, which is about a third of these three big drivers, sentiment away from transit, which increases bridge and tunnel traffic and e-commerce.” 

“Presumably, some people have decided not to take transit and drive instead,” added Director of Budget for New York State Robert Mujica. “There is a group of people who did take transit, and now they’re not — potentially, you could recapture that group if you deal with some of the reasons why they are not [riding].”

Subway riders wait at Penn Station. Photo: Phil O’Brien

While rider anxiety over subway crime have driven some to drive, a seismic post-lockdown shift in travel patterns may mean that the agency will need to look somewhere other than fares for funds. Though the onset of congestion pricing — expected to garner $1 billion in annual revenue — could help the MTA’s operating budget should legislators approve, it would adversely affect the transit system’s capital plan and funds allocated for high-priority repair work (Crain’s). 

Though they were working through potential solutions other than fare hikes, service cuts and layoffs, Lieber told reporters at a press conference following the agency board meeting, the MTA would be facing an uphill fiscal battle going forward. 

“The MTA is facing existential financial issues, brought on by COVID,” said Lieber. “We need to plan so that the MTA has a stable financial future.” Maybe it’s time to amp up subway memorabilia sales…

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