MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber appeared on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis to discuss transportation issues.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Errol Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. Subway safety remains a concern for many New Yorkers. And while there's been an uptick in major felonies this year compared to last year by 40%, crime in the city's public transit system remains far below levels seen in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now, a few prominent violent incidents over the last year have left many straphangers uneasy, leading Mayor Adams to increase the number of officers on subway platforms. So, why aren't some New Yorkers feeling any safer? Joining me now to talk through that and much more we've got Janno Lieber, who's the Chair and CEO of the MTA. Welcome back to the program. Very good to see you.
Janno Lieber: Good to be with you.
Louis: The New York Post says there's a crime-wave in the subways because major felonies are up 40% compared to the first 10 months of last year. A few paragraphs in though, the story also says that ridership is up by 38%, which I guess is a good thing. How are you seeing this?
Lieber: I think what the Post missed was the month of November, and in the month of November - this is important - we're actually down 13%. So, since the Governor and the Mayor took action in late October to increase the number of NYPD officers and MTAPD officers in the system, we've actually had a statistically significant reversal of that trend. So that's good. And last week alone, we were down 22% versus 2021. Important to bear in mind, compared to pre-COVID days, we're actually down 6%, there's less crime in the subway system than there was before COVID. Now, ridership is down too, so way, way, way too early to declare victory. But there is a positive trend and we're going to keep pushing.
Louis: How realistic is it that we'll ever get back up to 100% of pre-COVID levels?
Lieber: Listen, it's unclear right now. Work from home is here to stay. It's unclear how much of it is going to continue impacting on subway ridership. We're doing everything in our power as, you know, MTA operators to make mass transit attractive. We're trying to run really good service; service has been really pretty good this year, and railroads had having service like they've never had before. So, run good service. Take the steps to make sure that people not only are safe, but that they feel safe. That's why those announcements, where we're letting people know that cops are on the platform if they're having any concerns that if cops need to intervene, all those things are designed - fair promotions, Lucky 13, giving people benefits for riding - all designed to make mass transit more attractive over time. We'll see how quickly we get back.
Louis: I always feel uneasy when I hear those announcements about hey, you know, hey, cops are at the next station, because I figure if somebody's got a complaint, it's going to really throw everything off. It's going to slow down the train and everything like that. But does your research show that people feel safer?
Lieber: Yeah, and we're hearing it from riders, they like hearing those announcements. What was happening was there were frequently cops in the system, but the riders weren't seeing them. So one, it makes them feel safer. And also, frankly, on the occasions where there is something bad that has gone on on a train, we want them to know there's a cop on the platform, who can intervene and make a difference. It's working.
Louis: I want to talk about enforcement, we have a slide that goes with this, total arrests: this is just October numbers, or January through October, which is about 300 days. Total arrests are up 47%, including a 93% increase in TOS arrests, meaning I guess fare beating and other violations of the rules of the system. Summonses are up 54%. Is this what the expanded patrols are getting us?
Lieber: Listen, you know, what we're trying to do is - nobody wants to have arrests go up. I mean, what you’d really like to do is make sure that there's crime being deterred. But what we do want to make sure is that there is a sense of order that's coming back into the system. There's no question during COVID – and this is true of all our public spaces in New York - there has crept in some sense of disorder. And in the subway, small things like people smoking on trains, open drug use, you know, that is alarming to people, because they wonder what might that person do to me in a closed subway car? So, I think it's useful for passengers to see that those kinds of behaviors are being stopped and we're pushing back against it.
Louis: Okay, one thing I also noted that doesn't seem to get reported very often. Hate crimes against Asians down 41%, and against whites down 83%. You know, I mean, some of these things have had people on edge, but the numbers are at least moving in the right direction.
Lieber: Super important. I gotta say, I ride, I take different parts of the MTA system, sometimes late at night I ride the express bus to my back to my neighborhood in Brooklyn. There are a lot of Asian women on it who tell me they don't feel comfortable on the subway because of some of the things that happened to them or people they know. We really want those people to feel safe. So, pushing back against any kind of hate crime, even if it's only a verbal interaction is important, and I'm glad to see those numbers go up.
Louis: You and I have talked about something that I think everybody knows, which is that a lot of people who appear to be disorderly or troubling to people, they're caught up in substance-use disorder. They're caught up in mental health problems, they might be homeless and so forth. Do you – the MTA contracts with different agencies to try and deal with those folks. Do you hold them to the same kind of standard we hold the police to, meaning are you getting hard numbers from them?
Lieber: Most - actually almost all - of those outreach workers are working for the city rather than us. But we are very much involved in trying to make sure that those operations are successful, especially our end-of-line operation. And the Governor really stepped out back in October when she said it's time to find additional beds for the severely mentally ill. The numbers of people who are having severe mental illness in the subway are relatively small, but they have a huge and disproportionate impact on the experience of being in the subway. If someone's struggling with psychosis in a public place that is alarming to many of our riders. So, we want to make sure that we have beds available for that population. A lot of those beds went away during COVID. Governor is taking action to make sure there's a place for those people to start to get on the road to recovery and get out of the subways where it can really push the wrong buttons.
Louis: A couple of last safety issues. This question where the governor has talked about putting cameras on every train, who's going to be on the other side of those cameras watching?
Lieber: Well, first of all, right now, honestly, we use cameras in the system both to - we monitor 1000s of them - some of them we just use for investigation, and in every case those cameras are actually producing arrests. Every time you see something bad happened, within a day the cops, the NYPD, is arresting most people. So, even the cameras that aren’t monitored on a moment-by-moment basis have real benefit. And it also is a deterrent. The message is: if you do something bad on a subway car, we're gonna photograph you, we’re gonna get a great image, and you will be arrested and put through the system. I think that that is actually going to have great benefit. We don't want any part of the system to be a place where people feel they can do bad stuff without being recognized and photographed.
Louis: The other thing which I noticed, I think I saw them at West 4th Street, are some of these people who are security but they're not MTA police, they’re not NYPD, they were just kind of wearing vests and so forth. They were standing at this turnstile, they didn't look like they were going to stop anybody over, you know, nine years old or something. I was wondering what that was?
Lieber: You know what it was is, we have a problem in some stations, there are people who are breaking the vending machines, and then opening the gate, and taking money from people and running these scams. We want to discourage people from, you know, that kind of behavior and also discourage opportunistic fare evaders - they see someone come out the gate and they just pop in. I literally, on the way over here, there was a guy coming out at the Eighth Avenue and 16th Street A train station. He had his OMNY, a phone in his hand, and he tried to go through the gate and we stopped him. So, the idea is to discourage opportunistic fare evasion and to try to create more of a sense of a presence that will discourage some people. The long run is, we got to fix the design of the whole turnstile system, which is much too porous. I always say those exit gates, which are required by fire code, have become kind of the superhighway of fare evasion. We have got to find an alternative to that.
Louis: Okay, very interesting. And good for you for, you know, getting another $2.75 into the system tonight.
Lieber: Every nickel counts.
Louis: The Transit Authority is estimating that the QueensLink, there was a big story in The New York Times about: should it be a park? Should it be a connector? It's going to cost several billion dollars. How high of a priority is that for you? Do you want to see that built?
Lieber: Well, we have a lot of projects that are going to go through what we call the comparative evaluation. That's the process the MTA planning team uses to figure out which of these very big, expensive projects get prioritized for the next capital program. One, that’s not in some ways dissimilar from the QueensLink is the Interborough Express, that Governor Hochul has really taken a shine to. That like the QueensLink, would use an old, pseudo-abandoned right of way that already exists, and turn it into a new passenger rail line connecting Brooklyn and Queens. So, that project is on a fast track to be put through the environmental review process and analyzed. QueensLink will also get an analysis. But there are a lot of projects, and we can't prejudge which ones are going to come out the other end.
Louis: Okay. A big project that's supposed to be coming soon to a key decision point, the East Side Access, which would link LIRR to Grand Central at long last, so that people going east don't have to go west first and get to Penn Station. It was supposed to open before the end of this year. It's been pushed like maybe 60 days is that a real 60 days?
Lieber: No. Listen, this project has been around since biblical times. And when I took a look at it, I came to the MTA, and in 2018 I said we're not going to push the date back anymore, we're going to stick to this 2022 date. People are literally in there 24/7. I went there on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the place was rocking. Struggles to make sure that every little system works. This is the 750,000 square foot station that is the size of the Chrysler Building laid on its side. There are all these systems that are getting checked out and confirmed and commissioned. That's where we are, we're still pushing forward and trying to get it done.
Louis: I took a look at it years ago, when the drill was still down there. The key thing is the vertical, is what I discovered you know, and partly from looking at what happened on the Second Avenue subway, the main thing is the elevators and escalators to get people up and down out of there, right?
Lieber: Sure. They’re big escalators. It's 150 feet below Park Avenue, about 100 feet below existing Grand Central. But the great thing is because it's north-south along Madison Avenue, people who work at the center of Midtown East, you know, 47th, 48th and 50th Street on Park Avenue can get to their jobs really quick, great for our Midtown economy.
Louis: Okay, looking forward to all of that. Thanks so much for coming by. Best of luck with getting through a lot of this. We didn't even get to congestion pricing, but I know what we'll have to talk about that when you get that billion dollars you're looking for.
Lieber: You bet. Thanks.
Louis: All right, thanks a lot.