MTA Acting Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber appeared on WABC-7's Up Close with Bill Ritter to discuss riders returning to the transit system, the Authority’s financial situation and the newly released OMNY cards.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Bill Ritter: Welcome back to Up Close. I don't know about you, but I have never met one kid who said, ‘when I grow up I want to be in charge of the MTA, the biggest subway and commuter railroad system in the country.’ Yeah, me neither. But that said, the people who end up in charge quickly say it's one of the most challenging jobs in the country. It is certainly difficult, no shocker, especially now when the financials show the MTA could be billions behind budget. We welcome this morning Janno Lieber, who is the Acting Chair and CEO of the MTA. And I know it was a big presumption on my part, Mr. Lieber, but I assume you did not grow up saying, I either want to play for the Yankees, or I want to be in charge of the MTA.
Janno Lieber: Well, I was a Yankee fan as a kid, but listen, I was riding the buses when I was six years old growing up in the city, and this is the thing that makes New York, New York. We cannot be New York without mass transit really cooking, and it's an exciting moment for the MTA.
Ritter: Exciting, but also if I read all the research properly, also kind of daunting because there are billions of dollars that have to come into play, and they don't appear to be anywhere on the table. Could you just give us the state of play of what kind of financial shape the MTA is in these days?
Lieber: Sure. It's no secret that during the COVID pandemic, the early days of the COVID pandemic, ridership went down to 5% or 10% of pre-pandemic level, which put a huge financial crunch on the MTA. But we are making our way back very quickly. We literally, on Thursday, we set new record, 3.2 million on the subways. We're setting new records every week. Commuter railroads are really moving in terms of ridership. New Yorkers when they have discretion on the weekend, 75% of pre-COVID levels, so the MTA is coming back. We did get that money from Washington, but we have to get our riders back in order to establish strong financial footing again.
Ritter: There's no question. I keep track of the numbers just about every day, and it's still just a little above 50% of what it used to be. And you're right, the weekend, people use it on the weekend. I think that's because younger people are coming in who don't have cars. We also see younger people buying apartments in New York now that the prices are a little bit lower. So, all that's changing. But really to get this economy going, the city needs it back to 80% to 90%. if the research is anywhere accurate from the predictions, that's not going to happen till 2025.
Lieber: Look the linchpin, Bill, is when do the employers call people back to the office. And obviously that has been put off a little bit by the delta variant, but we're starting to see companies coming back and we want the MTA to be in top order to support that. That really means we have to have great service, we have to have a lot of service, and we have to make people have a positive experience when they come back to mass transit. We're ready for that.
Ritter: How many billions are you behind?
Lieber: Well, it depends, we were at one point losing $200 million a week. But right now, about a billion dollars a year shortfall based on the ridership projection. But again, the key is that we’ve got to get the riders back and start building from there. I think we're on the way to doing that. We're working very closely with Chuck Schumer who did an amazing job getting bailout money from the COVID relief package out of the federal government. Now we need the riders to come back to put us back in order.
Ritter: You're very optimistic, Janno, and it's impressive that you're upbeat about it, I guess you have to be. But I’m looking at this and thinking, and I'm just a country reporter, but I did major in business and economics back in college and I want to ask you this question: Unless you get everyone back up, unless the businesses open up and say come on back folks, the fact that you're vaccinated, come on back. How are you going to get all those people back on? Because a lot of people are driving in, it's creating more congestion. You're going to get congestion pricing, and that's going to stop people from driving in because it could be a lot of money every day to drive in below 60 St in Manhattan. Are you ready for all those people to come back? And if they don't come back, what happens to the economy?
Lieber: The MTA, more than any other agency in the United States with one exception, relied on the farebox for revenue. I think everybody recognizes that New York runs because we have mass transit. You cannot put four million people a day into central business districts the way we do without mass transit. So, I'm convinced that all of the stakeholders and all of the government leaders at every level of government are going to do what Chuck Schumer did and support the MTA. Governor Hochul has made it clear the MTA is a top priority for her, she showed up for every issue in the last couple of weeks. So, I have every confidence that we're going to have partnership in government. But what we're about is providing a safe and fantastic ride and a great commuter experience when people do return to mass transit if they're coming for the first time in a while. And as I said, Bill, we're ready to deliver on that.
Ritter: It's interesting to say that about Governor Hochul, because she's from Western New York where mass transportation is not that important, but it's uber critical for people in the lower half of the state, which is about 45% in the city anyway, of the population and a huge number of percentage of the population for the metropolitan area. Let me ask you something. You talked about Governor Cuomo a little bit and Governor Hochul, but I want to talk about Governor Cuomo because he was very much integrated and tied to the MTA. He put a lot of energy into it. What's the impact of his departure on the MTA?
Lieber: Look, I mean we haven't lost a step. It's no secret Governor Cuomo was passionate about infrastructure, but so is Governor Hochul. I put together the MTA Capital Program which is now the 50-plus billion dollar capital program that we had just before COVID, and now we have restarted that with our financial position, thanks to the Washington relief we got courtesy of Chuck Schumer being in place. We have now restarted the Capital Program, that means more ADA accessible stations, zero emissions buses, more re-signaling so we can run more trains safely closer together. It's the kind of stuff that it's going to bring people back, and Governor Cuomo was in support of it, but Governor Hochul is right with us.
Ritter: I want to talk about COVID, but I want to first talk about something that was sort of breaking on Friday, and that is that the OMNY card that you introduced before, but now is starting to really pick up, is going to cost money for people to get. It's going to cost $5. What's the reasoning for that, and how's that going to work?
Lieber: Well, what we did is, we were doing OMNY for quite some time on the handheld, so people were using their phones to tap and go. During COVID, we installed OMNY readers in the entire MTA subway system and the bus system. So there's a lot of OMNY use, almost a million people on a day are using OMNY, it was 25% of our revenue. What we were hearing is, people who don't use phones and don't download the app also wanted to participate in OMNY so we rushed out the card, they're flying off the shelves. People want them because they find it convenient, but they also apparently want them as souvenirs because it's a cool keepsake. So OMNY is really moving forward, this tap-and-go system. We made it $5 because we obviously have to recover the cost of that card, but the main thing is, as we develop new fare alternatives for the OMNY era, we're going to bake that cost into the discounts and approaches that we develop for OMNY, so it'll be like the MetroCard costs a certain amount. Interestingly the OMNY card is not going to expire like the MetroCards.
Ritter: COVID took a big toll on the MTA, if my numbers are right 171 of your workers died from COVID. What's the status, you require them to get vaccinated, how is that going and what's the state of play for COVID in the MTA right now.
Lieber: COVID did have a big hit on the MTA workforce, as you said over 170 folks lost. But we our workforce has become pretty heavily vaccinated. We're in the roughly mid 70’s% vaccinated, and the remainder of our workforce is testing on a weekly basis as of this week.
Ritter: Are you mandating it?
Lieber: We're mandating vax or test for everybody, and everybody who joins the MTA, new workers, has to be vaccinated.
Ritter: Right, many companies now, eliminating, and then the city's gonna eliminate the test it looks like it, and insist on a vaccination. We will see what happens. Janno Lieber, thank you for joining us and making the case, and good luck. We all are counting on the MTA, no matter how much we don't want to pay for it. So good luck.
Lieber: Thank you, good to be with you.