After catastrophic declines in ridership during the coronavirus pandemic, commuter rail lines that serve tens of thousands of Connecticut residents are now planning for drastic cuts in service of as much as 50%.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road and subway and bus service in New York City, says that without immediate federal help, it must slash commuter rail service by 50%, with peak period trains running every 20 to 30 minutes along busier line segments and hourly at quieter stops.
Service reductions would likely result in the elimination of more than 900 jobs and will have a lasting impact on Connecticut commuters.
“Today’s discussion was of the grimmest potential budget in the more than one hundred year history of the MTA and its predecessors,” MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye said at a recent budget proposal meeting. “This is the greatest financial calamity the MTA has ever faced from a ridership and a revenue point of view, orders of magnitude worse than the Great Depression on subways, buses, Metro-North and Long Island Railroad.”
The Metro-North Railroad consists of the Port Jervis, Pascack Valley, Hudson and Harlem Lines stretching north from the city into New York State and New Jersey and the New Haven Line that runs into Connecticut.
Metro-North ridership is down by roughly 80%. Connecticut rail service, which also includes the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines, as well as the Shore Line East and Hartford lines, is down in ridership by between 70% and 90%, compared to a normal month.
“The service levels may need to be reduced on the New Haven Line,” said Rich Andreski, bureau chief of public transportation for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “Given where ridership is today, we could afford to reduce service. We’re somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of normal, so a lesser service program will be OK in the near term.”
Andreski said that while the long-term resilience of New York City bodes well for the survival of Metro-North, what’s happening right now is “uncharted territory.”
“There’s nothing quite like COVID in our lifetimes,” Andreski said. “We had 9/11, of course, which was a different type of event that did change commutation for a while in the New York metro area. The financial crisis and unemployment had a significant effect on transit ridership, but nothing to the extent we’re seeing now.”
Jim Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group and former chair of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, said the precipitous drop in Metro-North ridership is “completely unsustainable.”
“They cannot keep operating with the kind of passenger loads that they’ve had and providing the kind of service that they’ve been trying to maintain,” Cameron said. “I’m not happy with it, but it makes sense to me that if they don’t get federal bailout money, they’re going to have to do three things: cut the service, raise the fares or lay off staff. And it may be all three of those things.”
The access Metro-North provides to New York City, Cameron said, has always been crucial Connecticut’s economy.
“Real estate values along the Metro-North line are absolutely tied to the availability and dependability of rail service,” Cameron said. “Metro-North is as important as Eversource electric or the water company. It’s a utility. It’s something that we take for granted.”
A $12 billion hole
At the height of the shutdown, ridership on all of Metro-North was down 90%. Emergency cash from the federal government kept the trains operating, but as talks of another stimulus package stall in Washington, Metro-North is running out of track.
Overall, the MTA needs $12 billion in federal aid to avoid a 50% reduction in train service on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, a 40% reduction in New York City bus and subway service, and the elimination of 9,400 transit-worker jobs.
Management consulting firm McKinsey projected a best-case scenario of 90% pre-pandemic ridership across MTA returning in 2024.
The worst case — a resurgence of the coronavirus in the New York City area, resulting in restrictions similar to those experienced earlier this year — is almost too grim to fathom.
“The numbers speak for themselves. We are approaching a point where these draconian options will have to be implemented to ensure our survival,” MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran said. “Not receiving the billions we desperately need to survive would stunt the tangible progress we have made in service quality and infrastructure improvements. We can’t afford to let that happen.”
The MTA’s internal cost-cutting measures — including reducing overtime, consulting contracts and other non-personnel expenses — are projected to reduce expenses by $259 million this year, $601 million in 2021, $498 million in 2022, $466 million in 2023 and $461 million in 2024.
But along with other money-saving moves, the agency will have to borrow the maximum of $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Lending Facility before the end of the year to close its 2020 deficit.
Congressional support sought
In Washington, members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation are working to secure new funding for Metro-North.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said there are “glimmers of hope” that a new pandemic aid bill would bring relief to the struggling transportation industry. The House-passed HEROES Act contains $32 billion in aid for public transit agencies across the country.
“That really needs to be more, but that’s at least the beginning, and right now, Mitch McConnell is blocking a package that would include it,” Blumenthal said. “The Senate really has to take up a COVID relief package immediately and stop playing politics with the livelihoods of the American people. The MTA and other railroads are the lifeblood, a key artery in our economy, going beyond just the livelihood to the people who need to get to work.”
Blumenthal said Metro-North’s proposed 50 percent service cuts would be “devastating.”
“Public transport is the way our essential workers and front line public servants get to work,” Blumenthal said. “Nurses, day care workers, grocery clerks, all the people who depend on public transit will find their lives paralyzed if Metro North and other critical public transit services are forced to suspend service.
Congressman Jim Himes said more federal aid was needed to “help us get through these unprecedented times.”
“Whenever I talk to workers and business owners in my district about their priorities, transportation infrastructure investment is always at the top of the list,” Himes said. “There will come a time when the pandemic has passed, and we will regret it as a country if we don’t provide the aid and investment now to prevent austerity measures that will have serious long-term negative effects in the future in critical economic regions like Southwest Connecticut. That’s why I’ll continue to fight for every federal dollar possible.”
A longer commute
Darien resident John Sini has been commuting to New York City for two decades, though his Metro-North ridership has dwindled to two or three round trips a week since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s even slower with less trains, which just boggles the mind,” Sini said.
The Friday night, 5:09 train cocktail-hour vibe, when “everybody would get into the vestibule and hang out,” Sini said, has largely disappeared. “The social aspect is gone. Every so often I’ll run into somebody I know, but there aren’t that many people commuting right now.”
Not everything about the experience is bad. Grand Central Station is empty much of the time. Sini said he hears “thank you” and “you’re welcome” more than he used to.
“I think people appreciate the conductors’ work more,” Sini said. “It’s a bit more friendly and respectful. It’s not the rat race it used to be. You’re not rushing to get on and get a seat. Everybody gives everybody room. It just seems less intense.”
Michael Hamad may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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