New York’s mass transit system chugged another bumpy ride in 2021, from leadership maneuvers against the backdrop of the political scandal in Albany of the overthrow of Governor Andrew Cuomo to natural disasters that brought the aging subway system to a standstill.
But things started to take off as more and more straphangers began to return to rails and buses in a city slowly recovering from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
A separate pandemic of traffic violence raged on the streets of the Big Apple, which remained fatal, plagued by shocking accidents, and set morbid records for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s final year in office.
Passenger and service rebound
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority saw passenger numbers slowly returning last year, starting at 26.6% of pre-pandemic levels of 614,497 passengers on New Years Day, from a low of 6.5% in April 2020.
The nightly shutdown of the subways by then Governor Andrew Cuomo between 1 and 5 a.m. – the first in its 116-year history – to disinfect wagons and boot the unhoused out of the system continued into the new year but the governor cut it down to just two hours from 2-4 a.m. in February and was back on 24/7 on May 17, more than a year after the original shutdown.
As the new COVID-19 vaccines hit the market in the coming months and the city welcomed back office workers, the MTA cracked COVID driver numbers on November 21 and the highest number with 3.44 million commuters on November 9 . December.
Despite federal pandemic bailouts preventing “doomsday cuts,” MTA budget pants warned the agency still needs to do some “right-sizing,” a euphemism for service cuts to close a $ 1.4 billion deficit. Fend off dollars as soon as Washington’s money dries up in 2025.
In order to lure back more “customers”, as the MTA calls its passengers, the transport operators announced a discount campaign in December that will introduce a first weekly upper limit for commuters with the OMNY-Tap payment together with offers on the S-Bahn from March 2022.
The new governor, Kathy Hochul, postponed a fare increase until at least mid-2022 after the previous ticket price increases had been abandoned at the beginning of the year.
Extreme weather events brought the city’s transportation system to a standstill as meteorologists twice recorded the wettest hour in the Five Boroughs.
Remnants of Hurricane Ida poured rain from “Niagara Falls” on the city in early September and flooded the subways – water poured like a geyser from a subway platform shaft – which cost the agency up to $ 100 million to get it pump dry.
The shutdown came just days after half of all subway lines went down overnight because someone accidentally flipped an on-off switch in New York City Transit’s midtown nerve center known as the Rail Control Center.
In early July, flash floods before Tropical Storm Elsa filled several stations in downtown and the Bronx, forcing drivers to wade through waist-high water.
The repetitive flooding resulted in MTA executives focusing on road flooding as the main problem alongside the coastal floods that were devastating during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Turbulence at the top
The leadership of MTA saw dramatic changes thanks to a failed attempt by Cuomo to get the top job through a law change in 11th President Sarah Feinberg as the first female chairman.
The bill did not survive the state legislature’s budget negotiations, but Lieber got the role in an acting role after Foye left, and Feinberg left the agency with bus boss Craig Cipriano who took on her role as in charge of the city’s subways and buses .
Over at the city hall, Polly Trottenberg, commissioner for the Department of Transportation, was walking for greener pastures in Washington, DC when U.S. DOT deputy secretary and Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed loyal political donor and retired intellectual property attorney, Hank Gutman to monitor the spread of the city streetscape.
Gutman will be replaced by Alderman Ydanis Rodriguez, who was elected by the new Mayor Eric Adams on December 20th to head the DOT.
Slaughter in the streets
The streets of New York City didn’t get any safer in 2021 as traffic murders broke records for the de Blasio administration multiple times that year, casting doubts about Hizzoner’s signature Vision Zero initiative to reduce road deaths to zero.
In a shocking 9/11 case, a ruthless driver mowed down a family in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and killed three-month-old Apolline Mong-Guillemin, who was pushed into a stroller by her mother. The mother was seriously injured in the collision together with another man at the scene.
The year saw the deadliest first six months, summer, and the first nine months of a year since de Blasio took office in 2014, but the mayor claimed the pandemic was to blame and that the past two years had been “deviating”.
“It is an extraordinary achievement that has unfortunately been turned on its head by two years of deviating reality from a global pandemic,” said de Blasio on September 30th when asked about his legacy. “So we’ll get it back on track. We will save many lives and I think we can get to a very, very different place over time if we really apply the Vision Zero principles consistently. “
During a vigil in November for the 1,800 people who died in the streets during de Blasio’s tenure, a representative from Adams promised to plant a memorial grove for victims of traffic violence.
Despite political unrest in the Governor’s Mansion, the state pushed ahead with major transit infrastructure projects through 2021.
The Moynihan Train Hall in Cuomo opened on January 1, offering an airy new waiting room for passengers on Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak, but the lack of seating resulted in travelers sitting on the floor.
The state’s two governors are launching a project to bring four new Metro-North Railroad stations to the Bronx via Amtrak’s Hell Gate Line, which flows into Penn Station to refresh the beleaguered transportation hub and Port Authority Bus Terminal and extend Second Avenue Subway to 125th Street, completing a decade-long project to bring LIRR service to Grand Central.
Hochul is continuing almost all of its disgraced predecessor’s initiatives, but is reducing Penn Station’s development contract to include a residential part of the mostly commercial 10-tower complex around the station.
The only Cuomo pet project that Hochul is stopping is the much-criticized $ 2.1 billion AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport, which she is putting on hold at the New York and New Jersey Port Authority in October pending review by a panel of transportation experts .
MTA also revived its county bus network redesign after a pandemic hiatus, albeit with a five year setback, starting with the Bronx and Queens.
Over at City Hall, Mayor de Blasio announced his plans for the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in August: extend its lifespan by another 20 years by 2040 by reducing the number of lanes to four and increasing maintenance and surveillance – all in the hope that by then someone has found a solution to the complex infrastructure conundrum.
De Blasio also fulfills one of his State of the State promises, opening a new bike path on the Brooklyn Bridge by taking a vehicle lane and turning the sidewalk above it into a pedestrian walkway that instantly almost doubles the bike crossings over the iconic span.
In the meantime, the proposal to separate cyclists and pedestrians on the Queensboro Bridge has to wait until the next mayor, as DOT did not want to further burden motorists by adding the remodeling project in addition to the ongoing bridge renovations and blocking more lanes.
De Blasio implements four out of five promised bus routes in the city, but DOT is watering down and eventually relocating the proposed Fifth Avenue bus route following backlash from luxury retailers and business groups on the posh thoroughfare to the nearest administration.
On November 15, President Joe Biden signed the long-awaited $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure investment and jobs bill, which will provide much-needed funding in the New York area, including funding for highways run by communities like the BQE and the Cross Bronx Expressway lead.
“This is a good step forward and it could certainly attract new ideas and new approaches,” said Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the non-profit Regional Plan Association. “It shows the federal government’s interest and intention to address some of the longstanding historical injustices and environmental degradation caused by the construction of these highways.”