Long Island Rail Road Interim President and Metro-North Railroad President Catherine Rinaldi appeared on News 12 Long Island’s Power and Politics with Rich Barrabi to discuss LIRR-related issues.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Rich Barrabi: Welcome back to Power and Politics. East Side Access Project, just one of the many hot topics to talk about when it comes to the Long Island Rail Road. So, let's get you some answers. Joining us right now is the interim President of the Long Island Rail Road. She's also the President of Metro-North as well. Catherine Rinaldi is here. Thanks so much for making the time.
Catherine Rinaldi: No, thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Barrabi: All right, so let's talk about Grand Central Madison. It's obviously the most pressing issue. You know, the MTA, the head of the MTA Janno Lieber didn't want to put an exact date on this. But do you have a sense of when this is finally going to open?
Rinaldi: I don't have a date for you either, but we're very, very close. We expect to be announcing a date very soon.
Barrabi: All right. So, is this just coming down to those safety issues that have been talked about at this point? And then also, when we are up and running, is it a full go or is it more of a phased-in approach?
Rinaldi: So, it is the same issues that we've been talking about for the past couple weeks. So, there have been some air testing, airflow testing that's been going on for the past few weeks. Those issues are being resolved and we're working through those issues. So we expect to be announcing an opening date very soon. And yes, the opening date is going to be for a shuttle service. So we expect to be announcing that shortly. It'll be a shuttle service for about three weeks, and then we would start the full schedule at that point.
Barrabi: Are you confident that once you're ready to go, and again, this has been delayed, there won't be any major issues? There are always little things that crop up. No significant issues?
Rinaldi: I mean, it's a brand-new service. But the one thing that I would say, I was just down there the other day, I mean, we're ready. I mean the terminal is done. It looks beautiful. The concourse is ready, the platform level is ready, so we are ready to go. The shuttle service, I think is going to be a really great thing for our customers because it's a completely new service. It's a revolutionary change for the Long Island Rail Road. People have been riding the railroad the same way for a long, long time now. This is going to provide a lot of options with respect to how people travel. But I think it is going to be a bit of an adjustment so giving the people the opportunity to be able to take that shuttle service between Jamaica and Grand Central, there'll be acquainted with the terminal, acquainted with just the way it all fits together, and then we'll start the full service in a few weeks after that.
Barrabi: What will the efforts be like to make sure that people know where they're going, how to get there, etc., once you roll it out?
Rinaldi: We're going to have stations employees there, there'll be plenty of people there to help people navigate. There are some really great maps that have been installed along the concourse so that people know where they are. And we've got a web presence. So there's a lot of information out there with respect to how this will add to the customer experience for Long Island Rail Road customers.
Barrabi: Right, let's talk about safety on the trains. We've talked about the presence of MTA Police on LIRR trains over six or eight months now. What does it look like at this point and is that something you believe will become a permanent fixture?
Rinaldi: We’ve got a new Chief of the MTA Police, Chief Mueller. He's been in place for a few months now and having those train patrols has been a real cornerstone of his tenure since he came here. I think it just gives customers a sense of security when they're riding on board. And I see them when I'm riding, and I think it really does reassure customers that they're going to have a safe and secure experience while they're riding on the Long Island Rail Road.
Barrabi: Has there been a notable decrease in crime at this point or too early to say?
Rinaldi: The crime, a lot of the crime that you're seeing, to the extent that there is crime on board, tends to be crime of opportunity where people leave a laptop or leave the bag unattended when they go to the bathroom, that sort of thing. So, we've really stepped up our messaging with respect to people taking care of their stuff. But I do think having that visible law enforcement presence absolutely discourages, you know, bad behavior, and I think is part of the overall customer experience that we're trying to bring on the Long Island Rail Road.
Barrabi: I think that safety issue ties neatly into this next, which is the ridership issue. Where do we stand right now on the numbers? We know we're not all the way back to where we were before the pandemic.
Rinaldi: Yes. So, over the course of 2022 and now as we head into 2023, hybrid work has really taken hold throughout the region. And that has obviously really affected the ridership that we're seeing across the MTA system, not just on the Long Island Rail Road, both commuter rails actually. You see the best ridership on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. And on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, you'll see ridership approaching between maybe 65% and 70% of what it was pre-COVID, which is great. I mean, if you think about where we were in the immediate aftermath of COVID when we were down to 5% of our pre-COVID ridership. The fact that we've come back to 65%, 70%, which is terrific. And then if you look at the weekends, the weekends have always been strong. I mean, the weekends really, throughout the pandemic sort of has been surprisingly strong and that continues. So, we have a lot of people, discretionary people, people who are not going to work, who choose to take the railroad to get to where they need to go. And that's very gratifying to see and you know, very happy to see that as well. Mondays and Fridays are just a little bit slower than what we've seen typically, because people are opting to work from home. But apart from that, I think I was actually, very gratified to see the bump-up in ridership over the course of 2022.
Barrabi: We know a lot of work has gone into bringing that ridership up, but the MTA has expressed concerns about a fiscal cliff of its own. There are rate hikes proposed. Is that something you expect to happen here and are you concerned that that might stifle ridership and people were thinking about coming back but are now looking at increased costs?
Rinaldi: Yes, so in terms of, a potential fare increase, that was taken off the table last year. For last year, the Governor intervened at that point in time. Over the past several years it's been sort of an every-other-year exercise to sort of look at the fares and that's something that's really sort of within the purview of the MTA Board. They've said that they're going to look at that later this year. My job is as the interim President of the Long Island Rail Road is to give our customers a safe experience, a reliable experience, a clean experience. We're now going to be increasing service dramatically with the opening of GCM within a few weeks. And I think those things taken together – reliable service, more frequent service – I think, really, that that's what I'm trying to do to bring more and more people back.
Barrabi: All right. Catherine Rinaldi, we appreciate your time. We'll be watching, please keep us updated.
Rinaldi: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me today.