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TRANSCRIPT: MTA Chair and CEO Lieber Appears on The Brian Lehrer Show

Updated May 4, 2022 5:45 p.m.
Chair Janno Lieber

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared live on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss increasing subway ridership and other transit-related issues. 

A transcript of the interview appears below.  

Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC, now we're happy to have back with us the Chair and CEO of the MTA, Janno Lieber. There's so much mass transit news these days. Ridership plateauing at around 60% of pre pandemic levels, increase in crime, and even faster, increase in fear of crime. Mayor Adams policies aim to get homeless people off the trains, especially at the end of the line terminal stops. Also, the crackdown on fare evasion and more. Chairman Lieber, welcome back to WNYC. Thank you for joining us today. 

Janno Lieber: Good to be with you, Brian.

Lehrer: Can we start with ridership is 60% of pre-pandemic still the right number?

Lieber: Yeah, that's weekday subway ridership. It's a little stronger on buses and a little stronger on the weekends, but what we're seeing is there's only 37% of people back in offices so we're missing a lot of trips, business trips inside Manhattan, we’re missing tourists inside Manhattan, we're missing some commuters. But students are riding, essential workers are riding and people go to medical appointments and taking their kids to childcare, so COVID really showed us that there are a lot of people that depend on the subway. That's the gap between 37% office workers and 60% of total ridership. 

Lehrer: And I guess that's why the weekend ridership isn't down as much as the weekday ridership because younger people who are not going to work, but they’re going out, plus essential workers who we should always say work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, on various shifts. They're the ones riding the trains?

Lieber: Absolutely. Absolutely, what COVID’s taught us is just how important ridership and the whole transit system is to making the city viable. We have density that’s double Chicago and Boston, 8 or 9 times Sunbelt cities. We need mass transit and it performed during COVID and it's got to be there for the future. 

Lehrer: How about the commuter rails? Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North? Similar to the weekday subway numbers?

Lieber: Yeah, Metro-North is a little behind Long Island Rail Road, but it's basically in the same levels as the subway ridership. We've seen significant increases in recent weeks actually on the commuter rails and that is a good sign. We've added service and definitely people are starting to come back from those more white-collar communities in the suburbs.

Lehrer: And you’ve spoken about budgetary implications for the system. You just had a reference to that, fleetingly, in your previous answer too. Can you do some of those numbers for our listeners?

Lieber: Yeah, I mean the budget impact of lower ridership is significant. You know, it's in the billions of dollars to our operating budget. You know the good news is the Capital budget, which is the money that we use to fix the system, expand new lines and do major construction projects is in solid shape, but with lower ridership, the MTA’s operating budget, what we use mostly to pay our workforce, is significantly impacted. And that's why I'm starting to talk to elected officials and stakeholders and people about the fact that we need to come up with a plan to fill that offset. If there's a permanent reduction to return to work, and there may be, everybody’s adjusting, we need a financial model to make sure that the MTA is going to be there and reliable, even if people are going to work a little bit less. We need the system to be frequent and reliable. 

Lehrer: What could that alternative model be because I guess we need to acknowledge the system is for the riders, the riders aren’t there to fund the system. It's a service, it's not a business so, is there a financial model that’s sustainable that serves the ridership that is, if in fact we’re converting more permanently to a lot of the professional class working from home? 

Lieber: It's a really good question. I think that the switch needs to be, first of all, a change in thinking. Historically, the MTA has been asked to fund more than half of its cost through fare box revenues and you know, raising fares periodically and so on and so on. I think we need to start with what COVID has taught us is that we have to start thinking about the MTA and mass transit as an essential service like police, fire or sanitation. So, what probably makes sense is for the discussion to begin about what are recurring source of revenues, other than fare hikes or service cuts or layoffs, which we don't want to do. What are the recurring sources of revenue that will fill what looks like a gap at least for the near-term in the MTA's budget. I'm hoping that that conversation will start to unfold the second half of this year.

Lehrer: We can take phone calls for the Chairman and CEO of the MTA, Janno Lieber.  212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692, or tweet your question at Brian Lehrer. Well, you just touched on the important affairs. Let's talk about fare evasion. You just had this blue ribbon commission. How much does the MTA lose per year to fare evasion? Is there a number that’s, you know, that's reliable? 

Lieber: Yeah, everything is estimates. But based on the current rates of fare evasion that we're seeing, the loss to the MTA budget is in excess of 500 million dollars a year. That's a huge number. But the reason that I impaneled that group, the blue ribbon panel on fare evasion, is I think that it's not just about financial impacts, it's really about the fact that a lot of the riders who want to play by the rules are feeling like they're suckers because they're paying the fare and they see people sail right past them through the emergency gates. It's a fairness issue for a lot of people. It also is an issue that needs to be looked at from the standpoint of education, so especially kids, understand that this is part of being a New Yorker and we need to come up with some strategies to make sure the MTA remains affordable. 

We now have a program for low-income people to get half-fare MetroCards. We have new fare discounts, like the lucky 13 which gives you a discount for, you know, if you ride more than a dozen times in a week. We're cutting the cost of commuter railroads for people who live inside the city and travel inside the city. We need an affordability and education approach, as well as some additional enforcement to catch people who might, you know, have weapons or be headed to do crime in the system.

Lehrer: Where does the problem of fare evasion meet the problem of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform to stop ensnaring so many, mostly young people of color, in the criminal justice system for small things. 

Lieber: Yeah, you know, you're right. I'm not interested in criminalizing a kid who makes a mistake. That's not the point of this and that's why I put so many civil rights leaders who have spoken out about fairness in the enforcement of fare evasion on this panel. Al Sharpton's number two. A guy named Michael Hardy is on it. David Jones who’s been the most passionate advocate of the more even-handed approach that didn't just focus on certain communities and certain demographics is on the panel. So, we're definitely going to avoid that problem that you've alluded to with fare evasion becoming part of the mass incarceration process. But part of the even-handedness that we’re going to do, we're going to go after the people who are evading tolls and covering their license plates, not just people who jumped the turnstile or don't pay on the bus. We have to go after all aspects of fare evasion throughout our system, and the tolls on the bridges and the tunnels are also experiencing fare evasion. We have to go after that as well. 

Lehrer: You know I think I mentioned we have David Jones scheduled for Friday morning show, longtime advocate for policies that help poor people in New York City and interesting that he's a member of your fair evasion commission. So, we'll talk to David Jones. More about that aspect of it I think on Friday morning show. I guess right now if you're just joining us, is the Chair and CEO of the MTA Janno Lieber. We’ll take some phone calls in just a minute at 212–433-WNYC or tweet a question for him at Brian Lehrer.

You mentioned the crackdown on toll evaders in addition to train and bus fare evaders. MTA is in charge of a lot of those tolls within the city as well. Was this predictable? Like when you got rid of the tollbooths even though when we're on the roads we say, okay, there's no more toll booth on the Henry Hudson Bridge anymore wherever we're driving that it would be easy to make some kind of fake license plate and avoid it altogether? 

Lieber: Listen, I think the benefits of what they call open road tolling have been really significant especially reduced pollution from idling and so on. But we definitely have to address this problem. People go on the Internet buying fake license plates or out of state temporary plates that can't be traced or using plastic covers. We're going to crack down on it and that has already begun. Just this last weekend, we caught a guy who was trying to do some kind of James Bond routine where he could flip the plates on his car periodically. We're going to get those guys and its 50 million dollars a year out of the toll beaters, and we're going to grab that money because we can't spare it.

Lehrer: Liz in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC with Janno Lieber. Hi Liz. 

Liz in Brooklyn: I know that this has been raised many times it's not a popular in New York City, but what about charging for street parking as a way to pay for the MTA?

Lieber: Thank you for the question. Our approach is whatever the folks in elected office want to do to help us narrow the budget deficit of the MTA so we could provide frequent service, reliable service and safe and comfortable service. We're all for it. So that is not an idea we reject. If that is an idea that would continue to help the MTA's bottom line we’re for it. We just want the legislature and everybody in Albany to get together and figure out what's the plan. 

Lehrer: Is there not a one to one relationship at least the strong correlation between making it harder to own a car in the city, or at least to drive in the city and sufficiently funding the MTA, mass transit?

Lieber: One of the great things about New York is the MTA helps make New York, in one way, affordable because you don't have to own an automobile, which cost 10,000 plus per year all in. So, making MTA mass transit service faster, more reliable and more appealing and always -- that is definitely part of the equation so people don't have to own cars and they're not incentivized on cars. We're also doing congestion pricing, Brian, you've spoken about that many times. And we hope that the feds will approve our environmental review by the end of this year or early next year and then will be implementing congestion pricing and that that will cut down on congestion, improve air quality, and also generate revenue for the MTA so that congestion pricing really goes to your point about trying to reduce the number of cars.

Lehrer:  A couple tweets coming in. I'm reading these together. I just spent two weeks in Spain and a week in Madrid. Their subway was clean, efficient, affordable and covered the city effectively. Why are other cities so much better at funding and maintaining their subways than New York City? And another one writes what is not fair is paying, city, state and federal tax and still having to pay for a crumbling, late, filthy train system. So that represents at least one strain of thought among listeners out there, what would you say to that?

Lieber: I think our system is incredible. We’ve got 472 stations. We have 7,000 railcars. We run incredible service over an incredible footprint and it is one of the things that makes the city affordable. Could service be better? Absolutely. We are coming back from a period when we were short of people because we weren't hiring during COVID and we didn't know whether there was going to money to keep the lights on. We're catching up with that. We want to run more frequent service, we kept the trains extremely clean during COVID and that was something that our riders loved. We want to keep it that way. The system is old but we're investing in it and we're expanding service. We want make more neighborhoods have mass transit service. We’re re-doing the entire bus system borough by borough to make sure that we have a much more modern, contemporary route system so buses can be a lot faster than they are, and even in Manhattan faster than walking. We are investing in this system. We’re improving it. We just need to make sure that whatever the frequency of people coming to office that we're not we're not eliminating incentives for people use the system by cutting service.

Lehrer: Another question via Twitter. Listener says no one is blanked off that people are sailing through the emergency exit. Study after study shows government loses millions of dollars putting cops on fare evasion beats and more when it goes through the courts. MTA prosecutes poverty. Make fares free for those making under $80,000. What do you say to that listener?

Lieber: I don't know what the right level is, but we are actually together with the City of New York who sponsors the Fair Fares program. It did have additional discounts for people who are at low-income levels, that's great. We've also made it easier to get the discounts from OMNY by not making it that you had to pay for a weekly at the beginning of the week but you could get it automatically when you use OMNY. We're cutting the cost of the use of the commuter railroads inside the City of New York so people can get to and from the city faster now that there's a little more room on those commuter railroad trains, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North. I think we're addressing affordability which is already solid but we want to do more, and that is part of the strategy for reducing fare evasion addressing this problem.

Lehrer: If you're trying to recoup up to half a billion dollars a year in fare evasion I think that's the number you gave, what's the budget for the extra crackdown on fare evasion or for enforcing it at all?

Lieber: OK, first of all, I sort of lean away from the crackdown idea because what we're trying to do is to develop a strategy that's not a crackdown, that’s not overreliant on enforcement. But as I said, you have the tools of education and affordability as well as a more balance and evenhanded approach. So, we are definitely, the City of New York is committed, this mayor as you know Brian, is committed to subway safety. He was a transit cop. He believes passionately that we have to get people more comfortable back in all the public spaces, but especially in the subways. And the city of New York has partnered with us to try to address some of these issues of fare evasion. But as I said, it's not going to be about lining people up and cuffing a lot of kids. The key strategy is adding education and new affordability strategies to the strategy, as I said. It's really about fairness for the people who do pay at the end of the day, because otherwise, the social compact starts to break down and people feel like, why should I pay because you know 5 people next to me didn’t. That is part of the motivation here. The subway system is like our most sacred public space. We have to have a sense of fairness and shared sacrifice, shared commitment, and that's what this is about not enforcement.

Lehrer: Let me ask you another public safety and how much police presence in the system question. This is, I'm going to read a couple of lines from a story by our reporter Matt Katz on WNYC and Gothamist this week about fear of crime in New York City versus actual crime in New York City. And he wrote what has increased perhaps more than crime is the fear of crime. In 2001, all categories of major crimes were higher than now. But in February of that year, just 36% of New York City voters described crime as a very serious problem, a Quinnipiac University poll found. The same pollsters asked New Yorkers the same question this February, and even though crime rates are lower than in 2001, 74%, that's twice the rate, called crime a very serious problem. So, is that something you would like to amplify as head of the MTA having to do with perception of the system?
Lieber: Yeah, I mean, listen, I'm not interested in arguing with people who feel uncomfortable.  Part of this is we've had a couple of high-profile incidents. That is, there's no question that has increased the sensitivity. But you know, whether or not the exact, what the specific numbers are and how they compare to the past. You and I Brian have been around in New York for many years, and I was a kid in New York in the 70s when obviously crime was much, much worse. So, there's no question there's been improvement. But what people are feeling is a sense of disorder on the system. So, it's not just the technical statistics of crime. It's also that there are people breaking the rules. There's smoking, there's open drug use, there's vandalism. When people see that they think what might that person do to me? And that is part of what I think we need to address as a group in trying to make the subways which are really important public spaces, in terms of our sense of New York community because every day they're the place where New Yorkers prove out the viability of tolerance and diversity in small spaces. We have to make it more comfortable and to eliminate these things that are making people feel vulnerable and that's what we're trying to do.
Lehrer: Few more minutes with Janno Lieber, CEO and Chair of the MTA, and here's one of your MTA conductors calling in I believe. Chris, in Queens, you're on WNYC.  Hi Chris, do I have that right? You work as a conductor?
Chris in Queens: Yes. Good morning, Brian. Can you hear me?
Lehrer: I can hear just fine.
Chris in Queens: Yes, I'm a conductor and I have a common question for Mr. Lieber. So, one, the subways are absolutely not safe. I’m there every day. I'm a lifelong New Yorker. I'm 57 years old. And the police? We have deranged. I'm out there every day we have deranged people walking around the subways and the cops will, NYPD will take them off the northbound trains where they are harassing and tormenting our ridership and my coworkers and putting them on the southbound train. The subways every, I was attacked last week trying to because you have to get passengers off the train if someone in the train is going to the yard and I was attacked last week. Hopefully, luckily, God I was able to get away from this person who I asked to leave the train because the train was going through the yard. He told me to cut off my radio and he attacked me.
Lehrer: So, Chris what you are saying the police are there but they're not actually removing dangerous people from the system.

Chris in Queens: They will patrol...there are 24 hours in day, we have a 24-hour system, during my shift you might see the cops patrol for about a half hour and they leave. The public, the ridership is not safe. The New York City subway system is a magnet and a haven for criminals. Like Mr. Lieber said we are the size of a big city. And every day we need constant police presence. Anyone who tells you that the subways is safe, they are not being honest with New York. Everyone who rides New York. Everyone who rides the subways everyday knows this system is not safe. It is the most dangerous place in the city.
Lehrer: Let me get your response. Thank you. Thank you for your service and the underground. Thank you for your call. And well Mr. Lieber there's the two sides of the coin. Some people say there are too many cops down there, other people say the cops down there don't do enough.
Lieber: So, number one, we want to protect our MTA workers. We are actually supporting a bill in Albany that would make it a misdemeanor to attack any MTA worker. That idea that certain kinds of workers in the MTA system could be assaulted, and it's just a violation like a fair beating ticket doesn't make any sense. We are seeing more assaults on our workers. And we want to deal with that. That's only fair to them. They had been heroic. The issue that Chris is talking about is real. That we do need to have a more effective police presence. The mayor himself is a transit cop. So, he is the one who is moving cops onto the trains and the platforms which is something we were asking for some time before this mayor came into City Hall. And I think that over time that will make a difference. Chris has made some comments about the effectiveness of those patrols. I respect that. But I also think that there is a commitment in the NYPD and in City Hall to making sure that putting cops where riders feel vulnerable and where our workers are vulnerable is going to overtime deter the kinds of violence and intimidation that Chris has described. We're hopeful the commitment is there.
Lehrer: And Mayor Adams did just invite New Yorkers to use their cell phones to take pictures of cops who are spending time on their cell phones. I think a lot of that is allegedly happening in the subways. On fare evasion, listener tweets, how about floor to ceiling toll gates in the subway system as a preventive measure?
Lieber: It's a really good point. One there's no question that those emergency exit gates which are an attempt to comply with the fire code, so God forbid people can get out in a fire emergency. That design has not worked, because it's become a superhighway for fare evasion honestly. So, one of the principal things that this panel is going to look at is are there different designs for the fare gates. Maybe it'll be floor to ceiling as the tweet suggested. But especially this exiting requirement, how do we comply with the fire code without creating something that's going to be no backdoor.

Lehrer: All right, I know you got to go in a minute. Let me get one more call in for you. Jay in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC with Janno Lieber, head of the MTA. We have 20 seconds for your call.

Jay in Brooklyn:  Ok. Hi. Two quick questions. There is obviously a lack of bus service in the outer boroughs. One thing I'm curious about is why little-used lines can't use smaller buses. I see lots of buses going which are hardly a quarter full. Even the size of a large minivan could probably carry most of the customers.  Another thing and this is controversial, I think it would help both service and cleaning if you know, the subway went back to not 24-hour service. I mean, how many people are really riding between say 2 and 6 a.m.? Couldn't buses on those routes take care of the need?

Lehrer: Interesting. Jay thank you. Alright, Mr. Lieber, last remark.  Anything you want to say to Jay and anything else?

Lieber: So yeah, I think the broad response is we are redoing all of the bus routes in the system with the kinds of things that your colleague mentioned in mind to make them faster, more efficient, more attractive to more people. So, we won't have empty buses. Especially empty buses that go to trolley terminals that went around you know that cease to exist 100 years ago which is some of our bus routes. Queens is especially important. We're in the middle that bus redesign right now. But more broadly, Brian, I just want to make sure that I don't finish with you and your listeners without emphasizing we are still 5 million riders a day. We are still the linchpin of New York City. We are still the thing that makes New York possible with its density because we could never do New York if we didn't have mass transit, instead had to rely on private automobiles like Sunbelt cities. You know we're in a period of change and were readjusting and we're coming back just like office work is. But the subway system is the special sauce, and the bus system and the commuter rail system and we have to get together. The governor has been a great leader on this and we're relying on her and the mayor to lead us to the promised land of a new financial model that will preserve all this that is so important.

Lehrer: We want you know that we don't take you for granted. We really appreciate your accessibility coming on answering my questions and answering a lot of listener questions and we look forward to more, but we really, really appreciate your openness.

Lieber: Love to talk with you.  Thanks again Brian.