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TRANSCRIPT: MTA Chair and CEO Lieber Appears on Up Close with Bill Ritter

Updated August 21, 2022 3:15 p.m.

MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared on WABC-7's Up Close with Bill Ritter this morning to discuss congestion pricing.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Bill Ritter: A leading proponent of the congestion pricing fee, the head of the MTA, Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber. He joins us once again on Up Close. And Mr. Chairman, thanks again for joining us. I appreciate it.
Janno Lieber: Good to be with you, Bill.
Ritter: Let's get right to it. Why is it so important to you?
Lieber: Listen, New York is choking on gridlock even after COVID. You know, we've obviously lost some riders on the subways, but traffic is in excess of what it used to be. And that means that there are air quality issues. There are issues of traffic violence, more people being hit by cars and trucks than ever before in New York. It is harming our economy. Ambulances can't get around. Buses are slower than walking. Gridlock is bad for New York and New Yorkers. It's also bad for the region because the Central Business District has to function to help fire the economy. We need to fix it. This is one way to start doing it.
Ritter: A lot of people would say, you know, take away the bike lanes, you take away these outdoor dining things which take up a whole lane of traffic. That would solve part of the problem.
Lieber: Listen, I'm not the traffic engineer for Manhattan. All I know is right now we've got massive gridlock. And there are alternatives. Remember, 90% of the people who come to the central business district don't drive, they take mass transit or they bike or they walk. Overwhelmingly it is a mass transit city. We're trying to say we want more of that. We want to encourage the use of mass transit. The numbers of people who are driving into the Central Business District are not as quite as big as your intro would suggest. And just bear in mind, every video you showed of traffic showed gridlock. Gridlock is bad. It’s bad for the air. It’s bad for our health, it’s bad for our economy. And it keeps the mass transit system from functioning properly so everybody can get around and do their thing.
Ritter: Janno, you know, this has been debated for a long time. I was just thinking as we were both talking, we, people have been, we New Yorkers, have been talking about this for two decades since Mayor Bloomberg first proposed all this with the MTA on board of course. You know, it's different though, and a lot of people would argue, some people who would have supported it back then said, you know, we have to bring people back, and this is going to hurt people coming back because they don't want to take your subways. They're afraid of it. You're still below 60% of what the pre pandemic ridership was. If you were up there already, and you said people are coming back. We want more people to come back. People are afraid to come and that's maybe a little bit beyond your control. Just as outdoor dining blocking traffic is out of your control, just like the bike lanes blocking traffic are out of your control. But is it time? Is this the right time to bring this up?
Lieber: Listen, we don't have room for more cars, Bill. I think you know that. And the people who drive to New York are, you know, are paying 50 bucks for parking. So, I think we should be worrying more about the people who are being impacted by traffic violence, by accidents in this road rage filled gridlocked environment. By the air quality impact. And not to forget as Governor Hochul said, and this is an important point. This is also a major climate change initiative. Just recently the Biden administration and Congress passed that climate change bill. Everybody agrees it's an emergency. This is a major pro-climate initiative to try to start to make progress on this existential problem for our country. New York is leading. The MTA is leading. We are leading on a lot of things. This is one of them.
Ritter: If it doesn't happen, what's going to happen to your budget? A lot of people say that this is, you're making an argument, social argument about climate change, and no one disagrees with that. But a lot of people are saying, you know, you just need money and you're hoping to get more people back. You look at these crime stats from last week by the NYPD, up 51.5% year-to-date in the subway. And that's hurting people and their ability, and their desire, their not fear to get on a subways again.
Lieber: I've been very outspoken about the issues of safety in the subway, as has Governor Hochul. And Mayor Adams has been great. He's made this a priority. I think that we are making progress. We're seeing police in the subway system more. We're starting to see an adjustment but that is no, that's not the reason not to attack this problem of gridlock, air quality, and climate change. We need our subways to feel safe and to be safe. We're attacking that problem. In the meantime, people who live in neighborhoods where there's a little more crime are actually riding mass transit more than people from affluent areas where there's lower crime. So, I don't think crime is the determinant. What's clearly happening is that return to office, particularly among white collar workers is lower. And we think that by making the mass, the Central Business District easier to move around in all ways, we're actually going to make it a more attractive place to live and to work and to come to. We think it's going to be a net plus. On the money issue, though: I did not come up with this idea to fill the MTA’s budget. This was enacted by the State Legislature in 2019. That is to say, congestion pricing is part of a strategy for getting money to rebuild the MTA system and expand it. To expand it in the Bronx. So, we can serve more Long Island Rail Road commuters from that suburban area and Metro-North commuters. It is part of a State Legislature and a statewide initiative to level the playing field between mass transit and driving.
Ritter: The key to what you said was it came up with, the plan was came up with by the State in 2019, pre-pandemic. This city is desperate to get workers back into the big offices and big office buildings and spend their money in Manhattan. And the criticism of your proposal right now, not maybe after the recession is over and the pandemic recession is solved. That, you know, it'll be okay to do that back then, when that happens later. But right now, they need to get people back and this will be a deterrent, charging people money to do that.
Lieber: Well, listen, this will not go into effect until late 2023 or early 2024. We're certainly well along, going to be further along the curve towards return-to-office. I think there are a lot of other issues that are affecting return-to-office. And I don't accept the premise that you know that 10% of people who are driving are the make or break for our central business district, Bill. How about the 90% of people who use mass transit? They want a better system, this will help fund it. It will help buses move around more quickly. It will help ambulances and police vehicles and paratransit vehicles and E-commerce vehicles move around the Central Businesses District more quickly. That is a benefit to our economy. It is as important or more important than that small percentage of drivers in my view.
Ritter: Your critics of course Mr. Lieber, say, point to you, not specifically perhaps, but to your organization saying it's got to be better run. That's the problem. What’s your response to that?
Lieber: Listen, you know, the easy shot is to attack the MTA. The MTA helped to power New York through COVID by getting our essential workers around. Our workers showed up and they were heroic. We've just finished a major capital project in Long Island that was $100 million under budget. We did the train in a much shorter time than anyone thought. It was $100 million under budget. People want to attack the MTA. I understand they are politicians and it’s election season. And there's going to be some of that. But attacking the MTA is a distraction. The real issue is what are our priorities? Getting rid of gridlock, improving air quality, making the whole Central Business District work better especially for mass transit. Those are our priorities. And I’m respectful of people in New Jersey and elsewhere, who live, maybe they live in a world where there's no air quality and no issues of climate change and no traffic. That's not where we are in New York and we need to look out for New York.
Ritter: Are some trucks, speaking of pollution, are some trucks going to try to avoid Midtown Manhattan and do, let’s say more on the Cross Bronx, a neighborhood that already has enough pollution?
Lieber: It's a good point and Congressman Torres raised that issue. The reason we did this massive environmental assessment study was to identify the potential localized impacts. That's the way you responsibly do an initiative of this scale. And we did identify some impacts that in certain tolling scenarios there would be more trucks. But we also have identified ways to mitigate that and that's what we're going to do. We're not going to let this this kind of system have negative impacts on a place like the South Bronx, which has had historical environmental injustice impacts.
Ritter: 30 seconds to answer a very complicated question, what happens to the MTA if this doesn't pass?
Lieber: Well, listen, the State Legislature said that they wanted, this program, it must generate $15 billion for our Capital Program. That Capital Program is used to maintain the state of good repair. That means just basically keeping the structure of the subway system, the signaling, the tracks in decent shape. That's most of it. But it also means, you know whether we can add more ADA elevators to make our system accessible, whether we can buy new subway cars, whether we can do those projects in the Bronx, and in other parts of the system, the Second Avenue Subway Phase Two, and all of those things are being funded by this. Those are important projects.
Ritter: This is a hard sell, and you're trying to make it calmly and we appreciate that. Janno Lieber, thanks for making your case today.
Lieber: Thank you, Bill.