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TRANSCRIPT: MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber Delivers Remarks at National Action Network’s Saturday Action Rally

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber joined Reverend Al Sharpton for the National Action Network’s Saturday Morning Rally
Updated September 9, 2023 6:15 p.m.

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A transcript of his remarks appears below:

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber: Hard to follow that Change Ensemble. Give it up again for the Change Ensemble. 


There's a famous story about when James Brown was opening for the Rolling Stones and when James Brown got finished, the Rolling Stones wouldn't come out. [Laughter] I know how those guys felt. The Change Ensemble.

Listen, it's a pleasure to be here with all of you. This is, you are part of a very special organization. There are not too many places that I say are the, that you do it from a to z. With what we just saw and what you hear from this podium, you inspire, and then you go out and educate folks and we all heard a lot about that this morning, and then you organize, and then you effectuate change. This is a one-stop change institution under the Reverend Al Sharpton.


I'm an old New Yorker. I'm an old New Yorker. I was there when the Reverend started some marches in Bed-Stuy in the Eighties and watching the organizing of those events at the Slave Theater and you know, what a long road. But there's no question today that the Reverend Al Sharpton is the premier civil rights activist in our country.


Listen, I am the Chair and CEO of the MTA, an organization that real New Yorkers love to rag about, right? We all know that. But I'm also an ex-Harlemite so I'm just old enough to be, when I come up here, to be nostalgic about the Flash Inn. Anybody remember the Flash Inn, and having brunch over at Wilson's on Amsterdam Avenue? What I'm not nostalgic about is when I used to go to the 110th Street and Lenox stop and there were guys sucking tokens out of the token slot. Anybody remember that?

But listen, when I was first, I was appointed by Governor Hochul two years ago, and one of my first stops was right here on this podium because I came up to talk to the Rev and to talk to all of you because I was trying to get out the message. 

Coming out of the pandemic, we needed people to understand the transit is more than transportation, it’s about equity. That transit is an essential service like police, fire and sanitation because for so many people, it's the only access they have to jobs, to education, to medical care and to opportunities to be full New Yorkers, to take full advantage of this amazing region that we live in. 

And we talked about it, because you know, because there was a huge financial impact from COVID, because less ridership, and I talked to people in the legislature. I started with Rev, but also went out and talked to people in the legislature and Governor Hochul most of all. And I said, “you know what, I don't want to cut service for people who live in”–I talked to Speaker Heastie—“people who live on Gun Hill Road.” There's not much drop off from the pandemic because the people got to show up at work. They go to work in person, and I don't want to cut the Train from Gun Hill Road because when it gets down to the West Side of Manhattan, a lot of those people are sitting at home working on custom designed Aeron chairs provided by their financial service companies.

So we all agreed that we had do something to make sure that the MTA was funded, so we didn't have to drastically slash service for essential workers, or drive up rates, the fare by a dollar or more. That was the consequence of COVID and we got it done. It is not widely publicized, but in the last legislative session, the legislature, at the request of Governor Hochul who is a strong pro transit advocate, stepped up, they provided new revenue. 

The New York City businesses actually did the right thing and they said, “yeah, we're letting people come to work two or three days a week, but we want good transit every day for everybody. We will pay a little more in taxes.” Give it up for the New York City businesses who did the right thing, it doesn't happen every day.


So we got our finances together, we got our finances together and the result is in the rest of the country, they're talking about cutting service for transit, which is, you know, disproportionately impacting poor and disproportionately black and brown communities. But here in New York, we are actually increasing service, line by line. We still got to do a lot of work on the weekend. You all come out to NAN on Saturdays, so you know what I'm talking about that we're trying to get work done to fix the system on the weekends. But we are actually growing service. And service has been, and I'm very proud of this, service has been the best in 10 years. With the subway service that has come back, and it is the best, and it’s not perfect every day and everybody in this room knows, and has that experience, but it is the best in 10 years.

And we’ve also attacked a problem that threatens all of us which is subway crime, subway safety, which was scaring the heck out of New Yorkers. And now crime is down lower than it was before the pandemic. Governor Hochul, Mayor Adams – we did, we actually have turned it around but there are other challenges to be faced and one of them is the scourge of fair evasion. 

Now it is a danger to the MTA financially the same way we're faced with not being able to provide service if we don't have money, fair invasion during COVID went from a $200 million problem to being a $700 million problem.

But we don’t want to fix it with what the old playbook of – “let's just crack down and put a bunch of kids in jail.” So what we did is, I set up a blue ribbon panel under the leadership of two social justice advocates, Rose Pierre-Louis from the NYU Poverty Center and Roger Maldonado, the first Latino head of the New York City Bar. And I said to Reverend Sharpton, who do you want on it? And he put [National Action Network General Counsel] Michael Hardy on it.

So we had the benefit of a justice–an amazing social justice-oriented group of people including an attorney who has given his life to issues of social justice, and what they came up with, they said is “we need, we're not about enforcement and crackdowns. What we're about is equity, making sure that people of low income know there is a Fair Fares program where you can get a half-price ticket just like a senior citizen, if you're below a certain economic level. That we have to educate our youth.” 

So I got in touch with Schools Chancellor David Banks who was on the panel and he came out, he came out and he put together focus groups with high school students to say “explain to us what's going on with fair evasion among kids.” And we are taking that message to heart and we're doing outreach to that community and including them in the solutions process. And we also said part of this problem is that the way the system is physically configured is making it too easy and too obvious. So we dealt with that and I want to thank Michael Hardy. We have a plan.

So going forward, you know, the other thing we're doing is we are attacking the problem of subway surfing. Five kids died last year. We cannot let our youth, kids, just because they're getting messages from social media. So we went to TikTok, we went to Google, we went to Facebook and we said “you got to take that stuff down” and they're doing it.

And we're going to come together, and we're going to be working with you because the next challenge in front of us is that we got to make sure that there is enough money to build and expand the system, so I can put it in the Second Avenue subway, so I can put in the new Penn Station access line in the Bronx. So people who don't have mass transit, who are disproportionately low income and black and brown communities have access to good transit, and rebuild this 100 year-old system that wants to fall down. We can't let it. Everybody's depending on it. 

God bless you and thank you.