Since the pandemic plunged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority into its worst financial crisis, the agency has warned of doomsday cuts, including slashing service in half and scrapping much-needed infrastructure improvements, that would cripple the region’s public transit network.
Those measures would inconvenience riders, but they would also deepen the New York region’s economic crisis. By 2022, the M.T.A.’s plan could cost the region as many as 450,000 jobs, resulting in $50 billion in lost earnings, according to a report by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University and Appleseed, an economic analysis firm.
The report comes as the public transit agency confronts a daunting array of challenges.
It is facing a large budget hole after the system emptied of riders, starving the agency of fares. Ridership has plateaued at about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels as more companies extend work-from-home policies. And any hope for a federal bailout may be contingent on who wins Tuesday’s election.
The N.Y.U. analysis projects that around 25 percent of the riders still using the system would abandon public transit if service is significantly reduced — draining the agency of its already shrinking fare revenue.
“The proposed cutbacks will undermine any recovery for the city and region,” said Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation and author of the report. “It will damage students’ ability to get to school, essential workers to get to their jobs and leave the high-rise towers of Manhattan empty for longer than we can imagine.”
The M.T.A., the largest public transit agency in North America, has projected a staggering $16.2 billion deficit through 2024, though it has not yet divulged a specific plan for how to close the gap if the agency does not receive the outside aid it has been seeking.
For months, the agency has been lobbying for $12 billion in federal aid, after receiving nearly $4 billion from an initial stimulus package. In recent months, transit officials have painted increasingly dire pictures of the system’s future without aid as part of a political strategy to pressure Washington.
But after coronavirus relief talks stalled, transit officials have pinned the system’s future on the outcome of the election and the possibility of an expansive federal aid package should Democrats retake the White House and the Senate.
“Given the $12 billion hole we are facing for 2020 and 2021, the only level of government that has the capacity to provide that level of funding is the federal government,” Patrick J. Foye, the chairman of the M.T.A., said in an interview. “The State of New York and the City of New York, they have their own independent deficits and funding issues.”
Still, the agency is required to pass a balanced budget by the end of the year and, facing the possibility of the agency not receiving any more federal assistance, transit officials have begun drafting the details of service cuts that will be made public at the end of November and would take effect by the end of March.
“There will be public hearings, notices to workers; this isn’t going to take effect Jan. 1,” said Mr. Foye.
In August, the M.T.A. outlined the broad stokes of cost-saving measures the agency could take, including cutting bus and subway service by 40 percent and slashing service on commuter rails in half.
Those cuts would likely hit essential workers and lower-income communities of color hardest since they make up the backbone of subway ridership today, transit officials and advocates say.
The M.T.A. would also reduce the transit work force and put on hold much needed infrastructure improvements, like extending the Second Avenue Subway into Harlem, adding elevators to stations to make them more accessible and upgrading the subway’s signal system, which has been the cause of many delays.
“The biggest threat to the city is that certain parts of the transit system could effectively shut down, eliminating access to some pockets of the city,” said Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a grass-roots advocacy organization. “That’s something that it would take decades to recover from if we ever bounce back.”
Based on that worst case scenario, the new economic report found that the agency would lose as many as 750,000 trips per day as people shift to biking and driving to avoid the subway or decide to work from home more frequently rather than commute. For those who do continue to use public transit, increased travel times would cost riders more than $1.7 billion in lost time each year.
Fewer commuters would have a damaging ripple effect on the retail, food and other industries that rely on those customers, the report found, leading to the loss of as many as 425,000 jobs.
“If people get accustomed to working from home even longer because the subway and commuter rail systems aren’t reliable, it will be even more difficult to recover,” Mr. Moss said. “For any theory that the city can roar back, without a subway and commuter rail system that is reliable, it can’t roar back.”