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A tragic toll for the MTA

An MTA worker wears personal protective equipment at

An MTA worker wears personal protective equipment at the Grand Army Plaza station in the Brooklyn borough of New York on April 7, 2020. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

The toll is staggering.

Bus drivers. Train conductors. Cleaners. And so many others.

So far, 59 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers have died of COVID-19, while more than 2,100 have tested positive for the virus, including 189 Long Island Rail Road workers. Nearly 5,000 employees are quarantined.

The MTA workforce continues to be essential in helping us through this crisis. As state and local officials talk about how and when to open up again, public transit will be a key part of the equation. It must be a healthy operation and the public must be confident that it is safe to use if the state is to recover quickly.

The MTA has tried to address the ever-changing landscape. But some of its decisions, like reducing service, have come with unintended consequences, like crowded trains, while others, like changing to rear-door bus boarding, or requiring and distributing masks, may not have come soon enough. The authority could have taken more drastic actions, to stop crowding in crew rooms early on, for instance.

Also clear: the MTA doesn’t have the medical expertise in house, instead relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state officials and other outside experts. The MTA’s pandemic plans, which dated to 2012, also were insufficient, failing to capture the scope or contagious nature of the outbreak, and advocating that the MTA maintain a certain level of supplies — which the authority had, but then didn’t distribute due to CDC guidance. Executives have had to throw out the playbook, changing policies in real time, and then changing them again.

The MTA has had more success on the commuter railroads. On the LIRR, the authority stopped cash transactions, and closed ticket windows and waiting rooms. Suburban commuters are avoiding the trains. All of that has helped. None of the MTA’s deaths have been at the railroad.

But many others died, just because they showed up for work.

There should be an independent review of the MTA’s preparedness and actions. It’s clear the MTA will have to make its emergency and pandemic plans more comprehensive and nimble. The authority needs a clearer public health chain of command, either within the MTA or at the state level.

The MTA should consider having its own public health official, who could work with those at the state level, not only to be better prepared for the next contagion, but to ensure the day-to-day issues of cleanliness and sanitariness are met with the best expertise. New Yorkers will return to mass transit with valid trepidation about their safety in such contained spaces. Only an intense campaign about the measures the agency takes to protect them from viruses and bacteria could restore their confidence.

Meanwhile, the MTA needs continued support, in the short term, to ensure it has the necessary personal protective equipment, and in the long term, to make up for lost ridership with sufficient federal funds.

This has been a difficult time for the MTA. Now, its leaders must do what’s best for their workforce and customers, while starting to plan for what comes next.

— The editorial board