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OpinionEditorial

Washington key to keeping the trains running

People on the platform at the Hicksville LIRR

People on the platform at the Hicksville LIRR train station on the afternoon of June 8, 2020. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

It is impossible to overstate the precarious financial situation gripping the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — or the lengths to which the authority will have to go to survive it.

The MTA’s first infusion just months ago of $4 billion from the federal government is about to run out. Without more cash, the authority is quickly going to be in big trouble.

But it’ll take more than federal money. This is a moment when the MTA has to reimagine itself and rethink everything — how it does business, spends money, operates trains and handles payroll.

With ridership plunging 79% on the Long Island Rail Road, 84% on the Metro-North Railroad, and 78% on the subways, the MTA’s revenue has plummeted. And the gap will continue, leading to a worsening financial crisis in 2021.

The transit agency’s survival starts in part with the federal government. The MTA is seeking an additional $3.9 billion, to keep operating through year’s end. It joined with other public transit agencies nationwide in a broader request for up to $36 billion total, and that’s important. But the MTA’s request is critical, because the authority is crucial to the region’s and the nation’s economic comeback.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell really wants a national economic comeback, he should start with the MTA. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer must continue to press to make MTA funding a priority, including for 2021, when the MTA says it will need another $6 billion to $7 billion.

But even if the MTA gets help from Washington, the authority can’t continue to do business as usual. If ridership doesn’t return to pre-pandemic levels — and it likely won’t anytime soon — it would need to rethink train schedules and personnel assignments. This is not the time for unnecessary consultants or extra executive positions. The MTA has to find new revenue streams and consider ways to cut expenses. A financially viable MTA will require flexibility and imagination from the authority’s unions, too — including the LIRR’s workforce. The past notion that the MTA’s still-ongoing contract negotiations with other unions should follow or match the Transport Workers Union contract already agreed to before the coronavirus hit might need to be revisited. Everyone must understand the depth of the problem, and be ready to make changes.

Another worrisome unknown: the future of the MTA’s capital planning. The MTA needs city and state funding, but their budgets are similarly decimated. Then there’s the all-important effort to toll Manhattan’s central business district, but it, too, is on hold, in part due to federal delays in environmental reviews. Yet, the MTA also needs to upgrade signals, add accessibility, and modernize its systems.

There are no easy answers. The only thing we know is that everything must be on the table — and nothing can be the same.

— The editorial board

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