MTA spending to clean trains may be largely cosmetic
The coronavirus pandemic has given New Yorkers a sight that once lived only in the daydreams of commuters: sparkling clean subways.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation's largest public transit agency, began a rigorous cleaning regime at the height of the pandemic as its workers were sickened by the virus and New Yorkers fled the system in record numbers.
But whether the cleaning regime for the rail and bus system - expected to reach a cost of $500 million a year - plays a significant role in reducing the risk of catching the coronavirus is yet unclear.
With the authority staring down fiscal insolvency, transit advocates are scrutinizing whether the time and money spent cleaning the system could be put to better use.
The MTA isn't alone in increasing its cleaning efforts. Transit systems - from Seattle to New Jersey - have bolstered their disinfection regimes since the pandemic began. But public health experts remain divided on whether surfaces, like train seats and subway poles, contribute much at all to the spread of the virus.
MTA officials still say it's worth it.
"We believe ensuring the train cars, buses and stations are regularly disinfected is important in our efforts to try and keep riders safe and giving them the confidence to come back to the system," said authority spokesperson Ken Lovett.
But even now, there's much about Covid-19 that's mystery to medical professionals.
"The story with coronavirus in terms of how long it lasts and whether you can get the disease from touching something that's been contaminated has been an ongoing controversy that's still not resolved," said Irwin Redlener, a medical doctor and director of Columbia University's Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative.
In the meantime what began as a safety precaution has become a new expectation - an improvement in the daily quality of life for most New Yorkers who rely on subways and buses to get around the city. The MTA reports that 70 percent of people who have taken public transit in recent months have said it's cleaner.
But many commuter advocates object to the MTA's current regime because it involves shutting down the subway system between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. every night to conduct the exhaustive cleanings - a change transit officials have said is necessary for the length of the pandemic.
As the MTA tries to draw riders back to the system, there's an overarching question as to whether the benefits of the current cleaning regime outweigh the drawbacks.
"While it's true that people are exclaiming over how shiny the subway is, a shiny subway will not bring back New York," said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for the Riders Alliance. "I think the governor needs to move off his focus on visuals and focus on tangibles - and for riders that means service that is safe, reliable and frequent."
Pearlstein, who opposes the overnight subway shutdown, has said the state-run authority should focus more on increasing service - which would theoretically allow riders to spread out more easily since they could wait for less-crowded trains or buses. He also said the MTA's requirement that all riders wear masks is a major component to keeping commuters safe.
The Centers for Disease Control updated its guidance in late May to indicate that the primary transmission of Covid-19 is through close contact, and that touching a surface "isn't thought to be the main way the virus spreads." The decreased likelihood that someone could get Covid-19 from touching a subway pole and then their mouth has led to increased scrutiny on the necessity of deep cleaning programs.
But health experts caution that much of how Covid-19 behaves remains a mystery and cleaning may still play more of a role in reducing the risk of transmission than some think.
"It may be some people say it's overdoing it - I don't think so," Redlener said. "There's so much unknown about everything to do with transmission, I think it's better to be safe than sorry."
Some also warn riders may not come back to the system if it's perceived to be unclean. While ridership has rebounded from record lows at the height of the pandemic in New York, it has since plateaued at roughly 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
"Having a clean system is critical to riders feeling comfortable again," said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.
The authority has already spent $262 million on its new cleaning program - and projects that number will eventually grow to $2.5 billion through 2024.
Much of the cleaning work has been contracted out to 23 private vendors the MTA brought on in May, totaling up to $157 million. The contracts are for services that include nightly station cleaning and disinfection, subway car cleaning and disinfecting at terminal stations, among other things.
The MTA has handed out $31 million worth of contracts to date. Talks are ongoing about transferring that work to unionized employees, according to a source familiar with the discussion.
The MTA has said the cleaning is a key part of its Covid-19 response measures, which includes mandating riders wear masks, placing social distancing markers in stations and conducting pilots to improve air filtration in subways. While it's unclear when 24-hour service will be restored, transit officials have said the shutdown will last the length of the pandemic - which is expected to stretch into next year.
"Since this pandemic began, we at the MTA resolved to do everything we could to keep our customers and heroic employees safe, and we continue to do that with round-the-clock cleaning and disinfecting of stations and rolling stock, piloting new methods like UV lights, antimicrobials and electrostatic sprayers, and requiring everyone in the system wear masks," Lovett said.
But even proponents of the pandemic-related cleaning question whether the MTA could strike a better balance.
"Are there ways to ensure the system is as clean as possible but can reopen earlier - particularly so early morning riders can get back on the system?" Daglian said. "At this point there should be some good data on how long it takes to clean, how long it takes to remove the homeless and how long it takes to get cars back service."
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