Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis to discuss subway safety and other transit-related issues.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
NY1 Anchor Errol Louis: It's been just over two weeks since that mass shooting on a Brooklyn subway train, which rattled a sense of safety for many riders as well as the attacks within the transit system that were already on the rise. The MTA says that regaining confidence in the system is critical to increasing ridership, which remains below pre pandemic levels. That is a view shared by Governor Hochul, who yesterday became the first sitting governor to ever attend an MTA board meeting.
Now the agency is saying that it's critical to crack down on fare evasion and other low-level offenses, in order to prevent more violent crimes. Joining me now to talk about that and more is Janno Lieber, the Chairman and CEO of the MTA. Thanks for being here, good to see you.
MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber: Good to be with you Errol.
Louis: Generally speaking, ridership is not going to increase until and unless people go back physically to work in the central business districts, that is what the whole system was built around. But that might not necessarily happen. Right?
Lieber: Well, we're still finding out about what the long term Return to Work model is. We're only about 37, 38% of workers back in offices, but the MTA is already at roughly 60% of pre COVID ridership. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think there is some reason for optimism. We're seeing – the peak is starting to come back – we're seeing last week during the school vacation, we had the highest peak hour ridership in a non-school week. There's some reason for optimism.
But the big issue, which is the one that you pointed out, is how can we get our riders to feel safe again.
Lieber: Crime has been up in the city at large, and some of that's come into the subway. And then what happened with the terrible shooting in Sunset Park. I think that there is reason for optimism because of Mayor Adams and his commitment to subway safety. A lifelong NYPD officer, a transit cop who rode the trains in the 1980s and 90s, who knows the system and knows how important it is to bring back subway safety as part of the city's recovery from COVID.
Louis: Well, let me ask you about that. The mayor talks about the appearance and or reality of omnipresence is the word that he has used. I had to do like a round trip and a half today. So I rode the A train, the E train, and the C train today and I didn’t see any cops, other than in Times Square.
Omnipresence is a really tall order, even with a not so small army of cops that are already underground.
Lieber: Right. Well, listen, you know, I don't know what you saw. But I have seen evidence that the NYPD is making good on what we have been asking for. We asked the prior administration – didn't get anywhere. This administration in City Hall has embraced the idea cops need to be on tracks, on platforms, and on trains. It's where our riders feel vulnerable, where they need to see uniform presence and there is a movement in that direction. So, remains to be seen whether we're going to achieve omnipresence, but more visibility in those key locations I think is a major plus, and we're starting to see it.
Louis: Weren’t there officers in the Times Square Station when Michelle Go was pushed to her death. You know, they're not there to necessarily intercept crimes as they're happening right?
Lieber: Not every crime can be stopped in place, but there's no question that visible presence of officers deters crime. The other thing that happens is when you have cops on platforms, frequently trains that roll into stations where something God forbid has gone badly on that train, they can intercede. We had in that Times Square Station, in the last month an intercession, when the cops got on a train after there had been a mugging, they got a guy with a 22. There are a couple other instances of that, where cops are on platforms, and you can actually grab a criminal and intercede that way.
Louis: And some of this is advisory, right? Because these are not MTA police. These are NYPD cops. They don't answer to you. They answer to the Police Commissioner.
Lieber: But interestingly, a little different than the past, this real close alignment with Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams has created incredible partnership that frankly didn't exist in the past between the MTA and the NYPD. We are actually planning out a lot of work together, including these operations at the end of line where the Mayor and the Governor are trying to get homeless people who are sheltering on the subway system, out of the subway and into services, hopefully into housing. So there's a lot of cooperation that's going on. I'm on calls with the mayor where he is actually taking account of specific police deployments and how do we get subway safety back on track. We've never had that before.
Louis: How do you feel about how things are going as far as people who were sheltering in the system? Is that changing to your satisfaction? Are you, I imagine, you're keeping your own set of numbers independent of what the NYPD makes.
Lieber: It's early days. I think we've been at this together in a true operation for a couple of weeks and we're operating at four to eight stations, end of line stations. I have gone numerous times to the Brooklyn College-Flatbush Avenue station and Stillwell Avenue-Coney Island, in Bay Ridge, and other places and the cops are there. They're frequently there. Regularly, there are outreach workers and Department of Homeless Services workers. We're evolving the system, but the commitment is there. We want to keep doing it.
Louis: Okay. Well, let's talk about a different safety issue which is people going onto the tracks. The City news organization reports a 20% increase in the number of people on the subway tracks, and we're talking about over 1,200 last year, which is up from 1,000 in 2019. That's a lot of people. That's a lot of incidents. That's a lot of danger.
Lieber: Yeah, no question. I actually noticed this literally a month after I moved into the Chair even before I was confirmed. I saw the numbers starting to move in the wrong direction. And we formed an all-agency Task Force we're calling the Track Trespass Task Force to analyze why this is happening. It's overwhelmingly voluntary. People are putting themselves on the tracks. That horrible Michelle Go murder is actually a relatively small number of pushings, but there are a lot of people who are putting themselves on tracks. A lot of people with mental health issues. Yesterday there was somebody on the tracks at Spring Street in the middle of the rush hour on the Express track. They lost their life. And it was a homeless person. And I went to that train because I heard about it immediately. Somebody who used to work at this station and now works for me was on that train. She called it in. I went up there and actually got on to the train to share information with the riders. Once the riders understood that this was that kind of situation where somebody lost their life, they're incredibly compassionate and patient. They were stuck there, power off, no air conditioning for an hour. We got to deal with this issue of people voluntarily. What we we’re doing, just to give you a little more detail, we've come up with some options for how do we put cameras on the front of trains that can see people before the naked eye, laser technology, thermal technology to detect people when this happens. But really, we got to start addressing this problem.
Louis: I don't know if I've seen too many movies, but I was under the impression that there are little enclaves, or hiding places, or places where people are sheltering – or even living – down in the tunnels.
Lieber: The scale is urban legend, but there are occasionally situations like that. We have people regularly walking the tracks in the late night hours doing these inspections when they come upon some of that. What’s happened in a couple cases, people get into mechanical rooms and set up shop there. We get the NYPD and we walk them out. The bigger issue is just this issue of folks electing to walk around on the tracks, which seems nuts but it's happened.
Louis: Yeah, I've been down there, sometimes on active tracks and it's really scary, even with people from your agency who are supposed to be protecting us. Is there a penalty for trespassing?
Louis: I mean, not to mention the fact that, you know, terrorists would love to be able to get more of this information and access it.
Lieber: Yeah, I mean listen, we always follow up with the PD to try to see if people are charged. This is a serious trespass offence and there's plenty of signage and knowledge. So, you know, so many of these people have their own mental health issues that the charging is really not the issue. You need to get them into treatment, get them into a bed. But we do follow up in every case to make sure that if appropriate, they are charged.
Louis: Last but not least fare evasion. These are eye popping numbers. Nearly 27% of bus riders and about 8% of subway passengers not paying the fare. Have you asked the NYPD to make that a priority?
Lieber: Yes. And they agree that this needs to be a priority. Here's why. I'm concerned that we're approaching a tipping point where there is such widespread fare evasion, including by people in better off neighborhoods. I use the phrase, and it's real. We showed a video of it online, somebody walking, jumping the turnstile with a $7 latte in their hand. That is really frustrating and demoralizing for New Yorkers at a time when we really need New York spirit to come together. I don't want people to say why should I feel like a sucker that I paid five people go in those gates? So what we did, I formed this week a Blue Ribbon panel, commission, call it what you will, that is not just going to be about fair crackdown, but really a strategy for how do we address this growing problem. I put David Banks who is the New York City Schools Chancellor on it because I want it to be about education, especially of kids. I don't want to criminalize kids’ education. We need more focus on design of the fare so those crazy emergency gates that people are using as a superhighway of fare evasion can get changed. That makes no sense. We need to really change the model through education and deal with affordability. It never should be a crime of poverty. We need to get people into these discount programs that actually exist.
Louis: Right, right. And in theory, if you do catch somebody for fare evasion, you can quote unquote, sentence them to actually signing up for the Fair Fares program.
Lieber: Exactly the kind of thinking that we got to bring into that commission. Alternatives to criminalizing, especially young people who make mistakes. But fare enforcement also catches people who are bringing weapons and might do crime, and I want that to be part of the equation. Because, you know, there's no question that not every fare evader is a criminal, but almost all of the criminals actually jumped the turnstile or came through the exit gate. So we want to get those bad guys.
Louis: We’re the same age. So you remember the time in the 90s, where there were posters up saying “you'll be more than just embarrassed,” and they showed a guy in a suit, you know, handcuffed. This was back when they were starting to arrest people, put them through the system for fare evasion. I don't want to second guess your blue-ribbon panel. But that's an important piece of information in education as well. Right?
Lieber: Yeah, you're right. We got to do a better job of making sure people, whether it's through signage, social media. We have all those digital screens in the system. We should be pushing this issue, but it has to be in a way that aligns with New York values. I think the public advocate said something about this today. We're not going to do this in a way that is less than even handed, especially, you know, we're not going to disproportionately impact one neighborhood or one demographic. It's going to be even handed. It has to affect everyone.
Louis: How much is the system losing because of fare evasion?
Lieber: Based on the current rates, we're talking $500 million a year. We already have a $2 billion structural deficit coming out of COVID. We can't add to that.
Louis: Even in New York that’s a lot of money. You tell people your fare is gonna go up if this continues, I think you'll get a lot of allies and people start to realize it's not a big joke.
Lieber: We need everybody.
Louis: Thanks a whole lot. Lots of information. Best of luck with everything.
Lieber: Thank you Errol.